Philip Larkin: Letters Home 1936-1977

Edited by James Booth

Faber £40

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE Philip Larkin industry has been exhaustive and energetic, not so much surviving his death as being invigorated by it.

Undeterred by the destruction of the poet’s diaries – Larkin’s last and most sincere wish – a series of books has sought to illuminate posthumously the life of England’s great 20th century poet. A marvellous, magisterial biography by Andrew Motion was complemented by publication of a volume of the poet’s letters to such as Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch. James Booth, editor of collections of Larkin’s early stories and poems, has also published two critical works on the poet. He puts his shoulder to the Larkin wheel yet again in Letters Home, a collection that shouts of industry and carries whispers of something substantial.

Letters Home has been hailed as a work of scholarship. Its attention to detail, its range in years, its scope in material are all remarkable. But its attractions are severely limited for the casual reader, if gently intriguing for those of us who regard Larkin as a great poet and a profoundly desperate man.

The book consists of letters sent by Larkin to his family, most particularly his mother after the premature death of his father. The letters to his sister, Kitty, are mostly concerned with practical matters. It is Eva, his mother, who is correspondent and muse for this collection.

At first glance, they consist of a barrage of banalities, a mess of mundanity. There should, for example, be an index listing for socks: price of, accumulation of, successful darning of, unsuccessful mending of, mending by colour. Or cabbages: meals with, meals without, smell of, requirement to have.

Other regular topics include the generally unsatisfactory state of affairs in hotels through the United Kingdom, including Scotland where the poet regularly spent his holidays, the weather, and matters tediously domestic. “Have you inquired about the immersion heater?” he implores of his mother in a query that will never quite elbow its way into a collection of great Larkin lines but serves as a useful reminder of the concerns of much of these letters and that even the genius must be warmed.

Meetings with the greats do pepper the book but only in the manner of a welcome but insufficient and thus unsatisfying seasoning. There are glimpses of Martin Amis, son of Larkin’s great friend Kingsley, in a velvet suit and regular, flimsy cameos by Amis pater. There are meeting with TS Eliot (brief and unilluminating), a meal with Stephen Spender when Larkin is offered an oyster, and an encounter with Ted Hughes, “a great thug of a man”.

All these encounters are recorded in an infuriatingly slight manner. This is, perhaps, understandable. Larkin, after all, is writing largely to his mother and the brutal realities of his life – his wounds, his envies, his despair, his rivalries- are never fully articulated. There is that English sense of maintaining decorum in front of mater. Larkin seems to have been incontinently revelatory only to such as Amis.

However, Larkin is too much of the singular man to keep this reticence up over thousands of letters and four decades. His casual racism is displayed. His dissatisfaction with much of his life is obvious. “Enjoying life as far as it’s my character to do so,” he notes in one letter.

This illustration of the growing sense of an artist under siege from personal demons is heightened by by what is known from other sources about Larkin’s private life. His heavy drinking, his chaotic and unsatisfactory sexual life, his hidden cache of porn, have all been brought blinking into the light by other books and personal reminiscences by his contemporaries.

“Drinking has become a problem!” he states in a letter to his mother in 1975. The exclamation mark seems perversely to make light of what is a significant confession. The allusions to a pint here, a gin here, and a glass of wine everywhere are conspicuous on every page. Larkin is aware that some things cannot be hidden even from a mother living scores of miles away and slipping into the dementia that would accompany the end of a long life.

There may be shame in Larkin’s inability to be candid with his mother but it is also understandable. The maternal role is more suited to be a consoler rather than a confessor. However, there is another element that is at play in the tone and content of the letters.

Larkin has been portrayed as a hater in many ways: a misogynist, a racist, a denier of joy. But he was also capable of great love. These letters are testimony to the practical demands of maintaining a relationship with a vulnerable loved one. Larkin can find the words to console a mother, widowed early and left prey to personal neurosis. But it is clear he also finds the time. The letters are regular, marked by portraits of cuddly creatures. They often herald visits or discuss upcoming holidays where son accompanies mother.

Eva sought comfort and Larkin afforded her this and more. He could be tetchy, he was often remorseful about a visit gone wrong but his regular missives talked of the routine and the mundane but in a way that offered his mother stability in the storms of her life. He was not seeking to be original, witty or revelatory. He was seeking to be a good son. This may not be the recipe for the most stimulating collection of letters for the general reader. But it adds a gentle smile to the largely severe Larkin portrait that has been painted since his death in 1985.

Larkin is famous for his line that parents tuck you up, or something that rhymes with tuck. However, his letters to his mother offer evidence to support another line. “What will survive of us is love,” he wrote in An Arundel Tomb. The truth of that lies in Letters Home.