Philip Larkin, if he had survived, would now be ninety. One wonders would he have rejoiced in the electoral breakthrough last week of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or would he have found Mr Farage and his campaigners a little fruity for his taste? Something a bit rougher perhaps, a league to defend England? Certainly, like Nigel Farage, Larkin had little time for abroad – though he did once say he would like to go to China if he could come back on the same day. Of course he also liked to put it on.
“He was a poet of England, or of England at a certain time,” writes Alan Bennett in “England Gone: Philip Larkin” (republished in Untold Stories). But was it England? Or was it Larkinland, once “our” country but now in the 1960s suddenly someone else’s, where “he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm” and the papers are full of split-level shopping and the kids are screaming for more.
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
“Larkin’s gloom,” Bennett writes, “has to be faced, and sometimes, I’ve come to think, faced down.” Though it was the sadness that first attracted him, now he prefers those poems which are most free of depression and disenchantment and which do not, as he puts it, bully him, like “Aubade” (“Most things may never happen; this one will …”).
Bennett admits that part of his discomfort stems from the fact that he has to read these poems in public to an audience and almost feels as if he should make it clear that these are not his words, his thoughts. One can see the problem. Bennett, like Larkin, does lugubrious, though of a quite different kind, cuddly lugubrious perhaps. However much one may like Larkin (or his verse) one would hold off from cuddling him.
Bennett ends the piece by telling us that while he had often read one of Larkin’s more cheerful poems, “The Trees”, it was only when he heard Judi Dench read it and distinguish the repeated words in the final line with different inflections that he realised this was the way to do it: “I have never managed to read it like that myself but I’m sure that’s how it should be done. It’s unlikely, but it might even have pleased the poet.”
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.