Like father, like son
Philip Larkin’s long association with Kingsley and Martin Amis resulted in the poet being misrepresented and misunderstood
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
In 1977, early in Martin Amis’s “erotic picaresque” adventure with the tantalising Phoebe Phelps, as related in his latest novel Inside Story, they consider Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings”. Phoebe, Amis tells us, “philosophically saw eye to eye with this poem”. He quotes the final lines:
We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
Amis’s explanation of the metaphors is characteristically negative: “The arrows of desire, as the poet sees it, are doomed to deliquesce in impotence and tedium — becoming as dull as rain.” This anti-marriage reduction of the poem misreads its tone. If they express “impotence and tedium” it is strange that these lines are inscribed on a plaque in King’s Cross station. And Clive James must have blundered in titling his admiring essays on Larkin Somewhere Becoming Rain.
No. This is an elevated epiphany. Whitsun marks the Christian sacrament of Pentecost, a visitation of the holy spirit, and there is a hint of transcendence:
and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.
Many of these marriages will no doubt fail, and all will be vulnerable to illness, age and death. But Larkin finds the hopes of these newly-weds deeply moving.
Inside Story comprises two strands. “The book is about a life, my own, so it won’t read like a novel.” In an interview Amis said, “In the end it’s about death”, and its most moving sections concern Saul Bellow’s descent into dementia and Christopher Hitchens’s death from cancer. But alongside this autobiographical “life writing” Amis constructs round the fictional Phoebe a novel proper, with strategically disposed denouements.
Thus, as well as being a source of erotic adventure, Phoebe functions as the central plot device when, in 2001, she contacts Martin, 25 years after their affair, to reveal that his mother Hilly had confided to her that he is not Kingsley’s son, but Philip’s, the product of Hilly’s revenge on her husband for abandoning her at Christmas 1948 to pursue a student. This questioning of the author’s paternity is, of course, absurd. A perfunctory glance at photographs of Kingsley and Martin is conclusive, and at the end of the novel Phoebe admits this was merely a “line” she had “spun”. So why does Martin Amis go to such lengths to imagine this intimate kinship with Larkin? It provides good copy. Larkin’s name sells books. But the reason lies deeper than this.
Throughout his life Martin Amis has been nagged by the profound cross-purpose between Kingsley and Philip. They first met in May 1941 at Oxford when Kingsley was 19 and Philip 18. Martin asserts that Kingsley “loved Philip with a near-physical passion”. Philip adopted Kingsley’s abrasive philistinism. Kingsley wrote: “I enjoy talking to you more than anybody else because you are savagely uninterested in all the things I am uninterested in.”
But in reality their community of spirit was less exclusive than Kingsley believed — or than Martin believes. Martin tells us that Kingsley was “the only male friend” who excited in Larkin “anything that resembled love”. Not so. In the 1940s Larkin’s most intimate letters to a male friend were written to the aspiring painter, James Sutton, whom he had met at school. Kingsley would have subjected their philosophising Lawrentian idealism to withering scorn. Aware of the limitations of both friends, Larkin never mentioned Sutton in his letters to Amis, nor Amis in his letters to Sutton.
A similar secretiveness is seen in the relations between Kingsley, Philip, and Monica Jones. During the later 1940s Larkin spent many months working on a novel centred on a fictionalised Monica, A New World Symphony. At the same time, he was helping Amis with the drafts which were to culminate in 1954 in Lucky Jim, with its satirical depiction of Monica, to which Larkin famously contributed.
Larkin’s Augusta would have been a more real and sympathetic character than Amis’s Margaret Peel. But he revealed nothing of his novel to Kingsley (nor to Monica). Martin posthumously continues his father’s antipathy. He met Monica only once, in 1982, but his recycled account of the occasion has given currency to the idea that “she resembled an all-in wrestler”.
Larkin’s association with the Amises has had far-reaching consequences for the poet’s public image. Both Kingsley and Martin became widely-read writers at the heart of the metropolitan literary scene. Consequently, their version of the poet has gained a wider currency than it deserves. It is unfortunate that many readers first encounter Larkin’s poetry in Martin’s Faber selection, Poems (2011), with its perverse introduction and shocking omissions. Implicitly contrasting Larkin with his bohemian father, Martin describes the poet as a “nine-to-five librarian, who lived for thirty years in a northern city that smelled of fish”. He life was one of sad “gauntness”. To reinforce this version the dust wrapper features a baleful image from what Larkin called the “Boston Strangler” set of photographs by Fay Godwin which the poet had given Faber “vehement instructions” never to use.
The one poem in Amis’s selection which alludes to parents is “This Be The Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”). Amis is aware that this poem does not give the whole picture. In Inside Story he describes the poet’s affection for his father, “that filthy old fascist Sydney”. He goes on: “The day after the funeral [Philip] wrote, I feel very proud of him. Proud. And he started to write an elegy for the old cunt.” Amis seems unaware that Larkin completed this elegy, and that it is one of his most moving poems, with arresting imagery (“An April Sunday brings the snow / Making the blossom on the plum trees green, / Not white”), and a haunting metonym of transience, the jam his dead father made:
Which now you will not sit and eat. Behind the glass, under the cellophane, Remains your final summer — sweet And meaningless, and not to come again.
Also omitted from Martin Amis’s selection is the heart-rending evocation of widowhood, “Love Songs in Age”, which reflects Larkin’s love for his mother.
Filial loyalty impels Martin also to make a virtual clean sweep of Larkin’s love poems. Among Kingsley’s rivals for Larkin’s affection only Monica features with any prominence. Larkin’s first love, Ruth Bowman appears in the sour “Wild Oats”. But “Wedding-Wind”, an ecstatic aubade in a woman’s voice, is excluded. The seduction poem-cum-elegy addressed to Winifred Arnott, “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”, one of Larkin’s masterpieces, does not appear. Nor does “Broadcast”, addressed to Maeve Brennan. Betty Mackereth appears only as the “loaf-haired secretary” in “Toads Revisited”. Amis ignores the love poems addressed to Betty published in Anthony Thwaite’s posthumous Collected Poems (1988). He thus omits perhaps the most perfect lover’s aubade in the language:
Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,
Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.
But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.
From a personal point of view, the most telling omission is “Born Yesterday”, which Larkin addressed to Martin’s newborn sister Sally in 1954. The poet wishes that the baby might achieve an “Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness” by growing up to be “ordinary” and “average”. In retrospect his implicit apprehension was tragically prescient. Sally’s “pathologically promiscuous” lifestyle (Martin’s phrase) led her to drink herself to death at 46. The only poem in the selection with a direct Amis reference is thus “Letter to a Friend about Girls”.
There is a fundamental deceptiveness in the apparent relationships between the “bourgeois fogey” Larkin and the “boho” (“bohemian”) Amises. In 1959, in the first letter he had written to Philip for a year, Kingsley boasted about his “full time” life “boozing and fucking” as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton. Martin remarks that in thus “fanning his wad at a pauper” his father’s letter showed a “lack of empathy to an almost vicious degree”. It is a self-evident axiom for Martin that Larkin’s love life was “of irreducible church-mouse penury”.
Kingsley, and after him Martin, is jealous of, and baffled by Philip’s artistic composure
It is true that Larkin did not see success in terms of “bagging birds” (Kingsley) or “pulling chicks” (Martin). Nevertheless, his Hull friend Jean Hartley recalled: “Whenever he spoke of Maeve or looked at her, it was with a sense of having won first prize.” We do not need to take Jean’s word for it. There is irrefutable evidence in the exquisite poem “Broadcast”. The emotionally charged distance between the lovers which it evokes might even suggest that the reserve and deferrals of Larkin’s “courtship” of Maeve Brennan were psychologically similar to the cock-teasing foreplay which makes Phoebe so alluring to Martin, though the women’s motives were different: respect for Catholic sacraments on one hand, child abuse by a Catholic priest on the other.
Kingsley never visited Hull during Larkin’s lifetime. He was indifferent to his friend’s success as a librarian and Philip made sure that he had little notion of his emotional and sexual life. Satisfied where he was, the poet kept his secrets, and in “Letter to a Friend about Girls” obligingly concurred with Kingsley’s reading of their differences. His comic version of his friend’s exploits resembles a scenario for a pornographic video: “staggering skirmishes / In train, tutorial and telephone booth” in a world where “no one gets upset or seems to mind / And beauty is accepted slang for yes.”
He goes on humbly to beg his friend at least to “notice” the women of inferior gauge to whom he is limited, who “work, and age, and put off men / By being unattractive, or too shy, / Or having morals.” Only a very literal-minded reader could imagine that the poet believed these ironic sexist caricatures expressed the truth about their lives.
In Inside Story Martin expands his father’s boastfulness into the spoof literary theory of the “smirk novel”. Like Lucky Jim, Lucky Mart has achieved the fame and the girl and the money. His wife is, according to Vogue, the thirty-sixth most “alluring” woman in its top 100 list (he inserts a photograph to prove it). His nickname for her is “Pulc” (Pulchritude), and they are an “attractive pair”, “enviably — indeed nauseatingly — compatible”. “And the two of them dwelt harmoniously in a six-bedroom house near Regent’s Park.” She also wins international prizes for her writing. It is to her that Martin proposes titles for his projected smirk novel: Confessions of a Sexually Irresistible Genius, or I Fucked them All.
What would Larkin make of this? If any of the poet’s works could be identified as belonging in the “smirk” genre it would be “Here”, his serenely euphoric celebration of being alive written in October 1961 at the zenith of his poetic and professional career. But it is immediately apparent that the label would be grotesquely inappropriate. Larkin is not interested in exciting envy and there is so little egotism in this poem that it doesn’t even have an identifiable centre of consciousness.
Rather than Larkin being jealous of Kingsley, Kingsley, and after him Martin, is jealous of, and baffled by Philip’s artistic composure, his lyric poet’s openness to life and his indifference to the competition for worldly success.
Martin was deeply affected by his father’s distress on the train returning from Larkin’s funeral: “He said, all disappointed, like a child, ‘It’s very strange. I feel I never really knew him’.” Throughout their lives Kingsley sought Philip’s approval or, more crudely, his envy. But Larkin had no real interest in the competition between them. It is not the rampant Kingsley nor the smirking Martin, who has hit the jackpot of life, but the hermit of Hull or, in Phoebe’s phrase, “the wanker from Hell”.
Despite the care Amis devotes to establishing Phoebe’s psychological complexity, her ultimate function in Inside Story is to provide Martin with vertiginous erotic adventures. Her allure reaches its apogee when she reveals her career as an escort and her appearance in a nude magazine as “Tycoon Tanya”. During the “night of shame” she bargains with him over ever more costly erotic services: “There were little shouts of laughter as the values dipped and climbed, like the price of crude.” His bill comes to £1,420.
At this point, over a morning cigarette, Phoebe reveals the shocking origin of her transactional attitude towards sex. She was fucked up in childhood by her mum and dad who connived in her abuse by their priest. Father Gabriel “got around to money in due time, of course. But at first he used sweets.”
Elsewhere in the book Amis states a preference for the picaresque of Fielding, deriving from Cervantes, over the boring social detail of Richardson. But Fielding’s novels expressed the unreflecting sexism of their time. Richardson saw the world, subversively, from the woman’s point of view. The character of Phoebe cries out to be given serious Richardsonian treatment. But, after a reflex of patronising sympathy (“Poor Phoebe … Poor, poor Phoebe”) Amis moves on rapidly from the revelation of abuse through Northrop Frye’s theory of genres, Amis’s own article on escort girls in Oui magazine, the genocides of Genghis Khan, Amis’s affair with Germaine Greer, and so on. If the novel element in the book were a sentence then Phoebe, who should be the subject of the main clause, is syntactically subordinated.
It is risky on Amis’s part to make the culmination a meeting between fictional woman and real-life poet
The loose ends of Phoebe’s tragedy are left hanging. What became of Father Gabriel? At the age of 15, we are told, Phoebe unmasked the abuse by her English teacher Timmy: “He got thirteen years … Yeah, They banged him up with all the other nonces … Serve him bloody well right.” But whether Father Gabriel faced a similar reckoning is not of sufficient interest to Amis for him to tell us. It is of more importance to him to record the ultimate humbling of Phoebe’s erotic power. In her final appearance in the book, aged 75, morbidly obese and bedbound, she asks Martin sadly, “Did you love me?”
In view of the limitations of Phoebe’s treatment as a novel character, it is risky on Amis’s part to make the culmination of the novel’s plot a meeting between fictional woman and real-life poet. Martin and Phoebe are invited to a party at Robert Conquest’s flat at which Larkin will be present:
She said, “That’s what he’ll think the moment we walk in. When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives. That’s exactly what he’ll think when he sees us walk in.”
“Yeah, and he’ll envy me. With good reason. I think he’s a powerful envier anyway.”
Martin shows Phoebe a passage from one of Larkin’s real-life letters, written to Kingsley in 1979 at a time of deepening misery, five years after the muse departed. The “permissive society”, he complains, offers no scope for his tastes: “watching schoolgirls suck each other off while you whip them.” The Larkin/Amis correspondence, increasingly marginalised in Larkin’s life, had remained in an adolescent time warp of puerile jokes and lewdness. In the final years they are painful to read, full of splenetic racism, far-right politics and fear of death.
At Oxford Amis and Larkin had indulged in “lesbian” fantasy. Amis projected a masculine voyeurism through the alter ego “Anna Lucasta”, and Larkin responded as “Brunette Coleman”. But Brunette’s extensive Willow Gables fictions were not begun until a year after Amis had left Oxford, and her oeuvre includes “What Are We Writing For?”, a witty feminist riposte to Orwell’s 1940 essay “Boys’ Weeklies”. Andrew Motion convicts the Brunette works of demeaning women. On the contrary, as Clive James perceived, they adopt a female point of view: “It was the way [Trouble at Willow Gables] wasn’t pornographic that staggered me.” The Brunette Coleman works were published in 2002, but Martin Amis shows no sign of having read them.
Phoebe thus dresses for the party as a crude Anna Lucasta caricature:
the pink tutu or ra-ra skirt sticking out practically at right angles to the cinched waist, the shortsleeved pale-pink singlet with its bra-less orbs and staring nipples, the pigtails, and the black beret with a sprawling gold crest on it saying Richmond Academy for Girls.
The encounter between Phoebe and Larkin begins plausibly enough. She tells him that she is “a big fan”. He challenges her, “All right. Quote me a line,” and when she responds with several fluent lines of comic misogamy, he replies, “That is quite impressive.”
But this is not the real Larkin. Having concluded that he looks like “the kind of bloke that hangs about the parks?”, Phoebe decides to give him “a flash”. (Larkin was not “that kind of bloke”, though possibly Martin Amis believes he was.) “I thought I’d drop my compact and then bend right over to pick it up. Then he’d be able to structure a wank round it when he got back up north.” Amis’s Larkin responds in mock horror, with a characteristic turn of phrase, “You oughtn’t to be allowed.” And Amis, aware that he is out of his depth, quickly moves on.
How would the real-life Larkin have responded? Most probably with sympathy and concern. The author of “Deceptions” would have intuited that this dolled-up woman was one of life’s sexual victims. But this scene is hopelessly misconceived, and such speculation is pointless. Martin Amis is neither the genetic son of Philip Larkin nor, as Inside Story shows, his literary son. He is an Amis.
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