There seems to be a never-ending procession of writers and literary figures, living, dead and wishing that they were dead, who are being told that they have been cancelled by a braying and self-satisfied mob. Their crimes are the usual: a refusal to accept the doctrine foisted upon them by society, an out-of-place remark or statement that was widely pronounced beyond the pale or simply representing too stale and archaic a form of privilege. In the case of JK Rowling, the best-selling author living today, it looks as if the forces of cancellation may have met their match as she calmly doubles and trebles down on her original statements, and achieves widespread support, as well as hysterical criticism. In other cases, as in the denunciation of David Starkey, a foolish and ill-considered statement has cost someone their livelihood, career and reputation. Chances are that it will never recover.
Sometimes, one wonders why certain figures have yet to be denounced. I know of at least one writer, a winner of major literary prizes to boot, whose reputation around young women is so appalling that most of the PR staff at his publisher refuse to have anything to do with him. Yet he is allowed to continue a highly regarded public career, and I have the horrible feeling that he has even been allowed to pronounce, in the most sententious and high-handed of fashions, on various moral matters. The brass neck is extraordinary, and I am sure that he is far from the only one. But as I wrote recently, on the anniversary of Charles Dickens’s death there is a curiously selective attitude towards what leads to outrage and what does not. Straightforward racism, transphobia and sexism, particularly from white men and women, are all met with appalled cries of ‘Down with this sort of thing!’, but other cases are met with a surprising degree of silence, even indulgence. One can only speculate as to what the ‘right’ sort of bigotry and intolerance really is.
One man who, I suspect, will face increasing calls for his cancellation is the greatest Poet Laureate that Britain never had, Philip Larkin. His reputation has only grown since his premature death from oesophageal cancer in 1985 at the age of 63, and the Times called him the best British post-war writer in 2008. His collections of poetry, most notably The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, continue to sell in quantities that living poets would envy, and the various volumes of his collected poems can be found on bookshelves throughout the country. I remember visiting a friend once and seeing a copy that his mother had given him, along with the stern inscription ‘He knew how it is’. Unlike the cosy steam trains and bunting nostalgia of his friend John Betjeman, Larkin’s verse is incisive, hugely affecting and often devastating. It is hard to read his great mediation on death, ‘Aubade’, at any age and not be moved and terrified.
However, Larkin was also A Bad Man, or so we are assured. His friend and literary executor Andrew Motion wrote a sympathetic and thorough biography of him in 1992, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, which lifted the lid on Larkin’s racism, sexism and general bigotry. Larkin’s notorious diaries – which, if they had survived, would undoubtedly have revealed an extraordinarily dark side to him – had already been destroyed after his death, but letters to his friends and mother and some previously unpublished poems filled in the gaps in Motion’s account, not least ‘Love Again’, a chilling and rather grim study of sexual obsession that begins with the line ‘Love again: wanking at ten past three’. Larkin’s reputation went from being that of a curmudgeonly but twinkly national treasure – somewhat akin to Alan Bennett, if he had lived in Hull and been a librarian and poet – to that of being an unpleasant and malign figure.
Motion had not intended to give Larkin a kicking – his intent was to praise him, on the whole, rather than to bury him – but the literary establishment, always distrustful of this odd, isolated figure, lost no time in applying the publishing equivalent of a pair of size 12 Doc Martens to his reputational rump. The poet and literary critic Tom Paulin, never an admirer, talked furiously of his ‘racism, misogyny and quasi-fascist views’, and sneered of his Collected Letters that ‘this selection stands as a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.’ Paulin was certainly in the vanguard of what has since become known as cancel culture, but Peter Ackroyd – a man of his own alcohol-induced enthusiasms and controversies – sneered at the ‘rancid and insidious philistinism’ of the ‘foul-mouthed bigot’, and AN Wilson (who later partly repented with a sensitive and incisive 2015 document, Return to Larkinland) called him ‘a kind of petty bourgeois fascist…really a nutcase.’
Larkin is a poet that even people who don’t usually care for verse can enjoy, even love
The correspondence columns of the TLS were alive with this kind of thing for weeks, and common rooms and university libraries were full of hubbub and muttering about ‘the real Larkin’. There was a stated belief that he was overrated (Ackroyd called him ‘essentially a minor poet who, for purely local and temporal reasons, acquired a large reputation’) and it seemed as if he would join the ranks, only 7 years after his death, of the writers who have an enormous regard in their lifetimes but are quickly forgotten once they can no longer make public appearances or sign books. One looks at the way in which Ted Hughes and WH Auden, once hugely popular figures, have now drifted into a kind of semi-irrelevance, beset by their own issues that would deserve cancellation (spousal abuse in Hughes’ case, rumoured sexual abuse of minors in Auden’s) and, by rights, Larkin should have joined them.
He has not. Despite the continued muttering about the grimmer aspects of his life, he remains popular beyond any normal comprehension. His work is of course a perennial staple of exam boards, and many will be the teenager who giggles nervously when they first encounter ‘This Be The Verse’ with its memorable opening ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. (I can only suggest that anyone who finds it shocking that a poet uses the word ‘fuck’ will probably expire in horror if they ever encounter the work of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.) But he also has an unusually widespread and universal popularity amongst readers. Musicians adore him – he has been cited as a major influence by the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Elton John called him one of his favourite poets in an interview last year – and David Baddiel hit the nail on the head when he called him the novelists’ favourite poet, thanks to his innate ability of telling a story – often a very complex one – in a very brief form. ‘Dockery and Son’, for instance, in which the poet returns to his old Oxford college, is amused by the distinction between his warm welcome now and his drunken time as an undergraduate, and then reflects on an acquaintance who fathered a son young, and the difference with his own life, manages to convey a short story or novella’s worth of incident in a 48-line poem.
Larkin is a poet that even people who don’t usually care for verse can enjoy, even love. There are lines in his work that have become part of popular cultural discourse – ‘Sexual intercourse began in ninety-sixty three’, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’ and ‘Life is first boredom, then fear’ – and many people respond extremely well to his unique voice, which combines toughness, humour and lyricism. These people are not the curtain-twitching bigots who Larkin’s detractors might have imagined that his readership would be, but those who can respond to the poems on their own terms and enjoy them as perfectly conceived and executed vignettes. There are remarkably few bad poems in Larkin’s oeuvre, arguably none at all; a testament both to his poetic genius and also his comparatively small output. He wrote virtually no poetry at all in the last decade of his life, and what little there was – such as ‘Aubade’ and ‘Love Again’ – was grim, although still as brilliant as ever. And then he died, and the posthumous trashing began.
I am expecting someone to come forward in the not too distant future and demand that Larkin is cast off the school curriculum and out of the bookshops for his many and varied crimes. In vain can one attempt to argue that the racism of his private letters was in many cases a performative act done for the benefit of his aged mother and riotously politically incorrect friends such as Kingsley Amis. The sentiments within them are fairly explicit and clear, whatever their context. And he almost certainly was a deep-rooted misogynist; a forthcoming biography of his most significant girlfriend Monica Jones may well put some of this behaviour, which has for a long time been seen solely from Larkin’s perspective, into some kind of wider understanding. His many other personal vices – his meanness, misanthropy and grumpiness, to say nothing of his ardent admiration and support for Margaret Thatcher – will no doubt be taken into consideration for the inevitable prosecution.
And yet, when the grand inquisition demands that our copies of Larkin’s collected poetry should all be sent to some re-educational facility (hopefully in his home town of Hull: he would enjoy that), I would hope that I would be able to keep at least one of my copies of his work hidden under a floorboard somewhere, away from prying eyes. Then, when I could be sure that my neighbours and family were asleep and that nobody would denounce me, I might occasionally allow myself the rare luxury of being able to sneak downstairs in the dead of night and reading his forbidden work by torchlight. And, I suspect, the ending of ‘An Arundel Tomb’, in which Larkin writes of the stone effigy of two aristocrats in Chichester Cathedral, lying hand in hand, will never cease to move and impress me, even as its writer has long since moved beyond any acceptable comprehension:
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
One can only hope that, in this most angry and hysterical of times, that what will survive of us all is love, rather than the empty sound and fury that we live in. Told by idiots, it is increasingly coming to signify nothing. And, as Larkin didn’t quite write in ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the whole thing has proved rather late for him.
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