Sunday, October 24, 2010

Philip Larkin's women

When it comes to women, I give you up, Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin. Although the poet – bald, peevish and apathetic – had several romantic relationships, most enduringly with the indomitable academic Monica Jones, his private life was ultimately a failure, reflects Martin Amis

Letters to Monica

by Philip Larkin, edited by Anthony Thwaite

Martin Amis in The Guardian, Saturday 23 October 2010
Philip Larkin and Monica Jones at the memorial service for John Betjeman at Westminster Abbey, June 1984. Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into a certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and VS Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won't be seeing, and we won't be wanting to see, the selected faxes and emails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors. Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, published by Faber, covers the period 1945-70, and passively evokes it: digs and lodgings ("I have put in for a flatlet!!!"), pre-decimal currency ("I owe you 21/1d I think – 24/11 plus 1/2 minus 5/-"), The Archers, Pickford's Movers and myxomatosis; its settings are remorselessly provincial, mainly Leicester and Hull (and Belfast, true), with so-called holidays in York, Sark, Lincoln, Poolewe, Bournemouth ("I hope you got my card from Pocklington"). The volume will be of vital interest to all admirers of Larkin's work, and to all students of the abysmal mystery of Larkin's life, with its singularly crippled eros. Much of the time, though, readers will be thinking that the "literary correspondence" is something we're well shot of – a postwar embarrassment, like child labour, meat rationing and outdoor toilets.

Sexual intercourse, as everyone knows, began in 1963 (which "was rather late for me"). But what preceded it?

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Larkin got to know Monica Jones in the late 1940s, at which stage he was wrangling over a ring with Ruth Bowman, who was a 16-year-old sixth-former when they met. The wrangle with Ruth lasted eight years; the wrangle with Monica would last for 35, leading to the same outcome. Ruth's frail yet defiant homeliness can only be described as quite extraordinarily dated. Monica was a robust and comparatively worldly blonde, with well-shaped bones (but ogreish teeth). A lecturer in English at Leicester, she was a small-community "character": she wore tartan when she discussed Macbeth, and in general favoured dirndl skirts, low-cut tops and markedly cumbrous jewellery. But her defining characteristic was her voice – or, rather, her overpowering idiolect.

This is an extract from the most memorable letter in the book (October 1952): "Dear, I must sound very pompous & huffy . . . It's simply that in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it . . . I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. I'd even go so far as to make 3 rules: One, Never say more than two sentences, or very rarely three, without waiting for an answer or comment from whoever you're talking to; Two, abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one (except in special cases); & Three, don't do more than glance at your interlocutor (wrong word?) once or twice while speaking. You're getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener – don't do it! It's most trying."
Martin Amis' full piece at The Guardian.

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