For April's Endsleigh Salon theme of the 1950s I pushed the boundaries and took along a person as well as a pile of his books. It was a beautiful sunny evening so Bookhound dropped us off at the top of the hotel drive and Philip Larkin and I strolled down to the hotel admiring the rhododendrons along the way.
It all started quite a while ago with the arrival of Letters to Monica, Philip Larkin's previously unpublished correspondence with Monica Jones which only came to light after her death in 2001. Almost 2000 letters, postcards and telegrams chronicling Larkin's day to day life and the complexities of his relationship with Monica. They had met at Leicester University in 1946 when Larkin was the assistant librarian and Monica was a lecturer, and whilst Philip Larkin moved first to Belfast and then to Hull, Monica remained in Leicester and quickly became his correspondent, confidante and eventually his lover until his death over forty years later in 1985.
That much the cover blurb reveals but the letters reveal so much more, yet frustratingly only half the story. Isn't it always the way with books of letters like this, one side of the correspondence that leaves you hazarding a guess at what the other person may have said to elicit the response it does. Easy to gauge Larkin but some deciphering required to reveal that Monica may have been scathing, angry, depressed or funny and as the letters settle into a mutually appreciative and trusting groove, much cynicism and bitchiness too at which Larkin was no slouch either.
I'm still only a fraction of the way into the letters but it was enough to make me pick up some poetry too and The Whitsun Weddings came quickly to hand with that favourite of poems
Side by side their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet....
An Arundel Tomb, still amongst the most perfect of Philip Larkin's poems for me perhaps a throw back to that A Level English exam in the summer of 1972
And with its final line 'what will survive of us is love' seeming like a fitting if veiled tribute to Monica given that Larkin could never commit to permanence, and had simultaneously kindled another love interest, Maeve Brennan, a librarian on his staff at Hull University. In the final countdown and with Maeve and Monica meeting for the first time at his sick bed, it is Maeve who Larkin expunges from his will leaving everything to Monica.
Time to find out more about all that so I spent a few days whizzing through the interesting bits of Andrew Motion's biography A Writer's Life - Philip Larkin. I'm sure it's all interesting but I was intrigued by the complexities of Larkin's love life, his loathing of Ted Hughes and also by the poet's acute hypochondria and a near-pathological fear of death.
The vacant Laureateship hung like the sword of Damocles over the head of a reluctant Philip Larkin on the death of John Betjeman, and, having turned down the offer when it was made, it was to Larkin's eternal regret that his refusal granted Ted Hughes a place in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Hughes represented the younger generation of up and coming poets who wrote for a living whilst Larkin worked as a full-time librarian for his. All those insecurities and jealousies evident in Philip Larkin's account of a shared poetry event...
'Hughes filled out hall and got a great reception. I was in the chair, providing a sophisticated, insincere, effete and gold-watch-chained alternative to his primitive, forthright, virile, leather-jacketed persona...'
The thoughts going through these two great poetic minds when this picture was taken can only be imagined.
In the end Philip Larkin's demise was a sad one. Deaf and living on a diet of cheap red wine and Complan while Monica sustained herself on tomato sandwiches and gin, Philip Larkin slowly succumbed to cancer. Monica took the decision that Larkin shouldn't be told the truth of the terminal nature of his illness, perhaps as much for her own sanity in having to bear the brunt of his melancholy and distress as for Larkin's own mental well-being. He was to confront his greatest fear, dying alone in hospital one night, just a nurse holding his hand, and after uttering his final words 'I am going to the inevitable.' All his diaries were burnt some days later in keeping with his dying wishes and how ironic that Ted Hughes, as Poet Laureate was called on to read 'Let us Now Praise Famous Men' at the memorial service along with Jill Balcon widow of C.Day-Lewis who read An Arundel Tomb.
I almost feel our Philip deserves an honorary place here don't you.