Collected Poems

Philip Larkin

Folio Society, £34.95

Review by Rosemary Goring

In this age of rampant revisionism let’s talk about Philip. Larkin, who was born in Coventry in 1922 and died in Hull in 1985, was a quintessentially English poet. At a time when international travel became routine he revelled in going nowhere. England made him and by and large held him under its spell. Interviewed for the Observer, he said he wouldn’t mind visiting China as long as he could return the same day.

Vacations were spent in the north of England or Scotland, whose landscape he loved and whose poets – especially Hugh MacDiarmid – he didn’t rate. In the mid-1930s the Larkins holidayed in Germany where his father Sydney, an anti-semite, felt very much at home. Sydney, who worked in local government, was also an admirer of Hitler and kept a statue of him on his mantelpiece reproducing a Nazi salute. Think Basil Fawlty and you’re on the right track.

His loving son was no fan of Hitler and he was no anti-semite. His attitude to race, however, is complex to say the least, and best considered through the medium of jazz. For him, the music was at its most potent, hypnotic and enjoyable in its infancy when Louis Armstrong, the great crowd pleaser, was in his pomp. But along came the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus who refused to pander to the stereotype of the black man entertaining whites. Larkin felt that what emanated from them was more than his ear could stand and he used his jazz column in the Daily Telegraph to explain why. “It’s about time,” he told one correspondent, “jazz had its Enoch Powell.”

Then there are the women. For a man who looked more like Eric Morecambe than Sean Connery, Larkin’s success rate offers hope to the bald, beer-bellied and bespectacled. He never married but was rarely short of a female companion, and was adept at stringing several women along simultaneously. Some have accused him of misogyny; I’d suggest a verdict of not proven. But he did have a fondness for smutty jokes and was a keen collector of pornography, albeit of the sort that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow nowadays.

Then there is his poetry which resonates still. No other modern English poet is so frequently quoted or invoked. Quite rightly he was offered the poet laureateship, but declined. Imagine the hullabaloo if he was presently in post and his views on race, women and politics (decidedly to the right) became public.

This edition of Larkin’s Collected Poems is remarkable not for the poems, which his fans must already have and know, but for the inclusion of a selection of his photographs, some of which have not been published previously.

In his foreword, Andrew Motion notes that Larkin was a “committed” amateur photographer who took his hobby seriously, but he was no Cartier-Bresson. Just 13 photographs are included which seems meagre. Their subject matter echoes that of his poetry: gravestones in a cemetery, cranes at Hull docks, the Larkin family on a beach the summer war broke out.

Other photos are of two of his lovers – Monica Jones posing in a bathing costume, Maeve Brennan “seen through reeds” in a field – and of Larkin himself in his bachelor pad. The final one is of him leaning on a chair. Sitting in it is his mother who is wearing a floral dress and has in her lap a knitted rabbit. It was taken in the 1960s. So glum and old and old-fashioned does Larkin look that if you didn’t know otherwise you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pair were husband and wife.