Dead poets’ society

Why Philip Larkin's private misdemeanours have become a public obsession.

Neil Davenport

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‘Why are we still obsessed with Philip Larkin?’, asked Mark Lawson in the Guardian recently (1).

It’s a fair enough question. With a recent Channel 4 documentary (Love and Death In Hull) and a new dramatisation of his life (Love Again), there is renewed interest in the late, eminent English poet. Unfortunately, little of the posthumous probing of the former Hull librarian is concerned with his bleak yet illuminating poetry. In fact, any literary assessment can appear as a rash afterthought. Instead, there is often a focus on the lurid aspects of Larkin’s life: his casual misogyny, his racist doggerel and his penchant for porn.

This isn’t the first time that Larkin has come under attack. He was critically mauled in the 1960s by the likes of Charles Tomlinson and Donald Davie, for being symptomatic of Britain’s flaccid cultural ambitions. It was the publication 10 years ago of Larkin’s private correspondences, revealing the extent of his bigotry, that ranked Larkin as literary enemy number one. Such furious dismay, however, was largely confined to broadsheet literary editors and English professors at Oxford University.

Today the outrage against Larkin has not only become mainstream, but emerges at a time when every facet of Old Britain is called into question. Larkin, like TS Eliot and DH Lawrence before him, articulated the prevailing prejudices of Old Britain. Larkin could only do so in private because the experience of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust made such bigotry publicly unacceptable.

But if Larkin’s elitist values were out of line during ‘egalitarian’ postwar Britain, they’re positively inflammatory in socially inclusive New Britain. And this is one of the reasons why a dead poet’s personal indulgences are wheeled out once more. By discrediting Larkin alongside Lawrence and Eliot, the ‘tolerant’ premise of multiculturalism appears as a sensible alternative. More worryingly, there is also a suggestion that standards of literacy should be based, not on whether an author or poet is any good, but on whether they are morally acceptable. As the Observer put it: ‘Never mind the trenchant, brilliant poet, these (private) stories will send Larkin to the back of the class.’ (2)

It’s not just secretly right-wing figures such as Larkin who have been singled out for critical revision. George Orwell has recently come in for a damning reappraisal, too. The government recently decided to reveal the author’s 54-year-old list of ‘crypto-communists’. For any scholar of Orwell, news that he had a role in drafting a blacklist for the Foreign Office is hardly a big deal. Neither is the news that Orwell harboured (and fought against) elitist prejudices, expressed a parochial Little Englander mentality and had questionable attitudes towards women. All that should matter is Orwell’s writing and his insights. But that is no longer the case. Like Larkin, Orwell was still a product of Old Britain and, as far as contemporary etiquette goes, that alone is highly reprehensible.

Highlighting Old Britain’s reactionary ways flatters the conceit of New Britain’s political class, and ratifies a supposedly ‘anti-elitist’ agenda. The revelations on Orwell have been presented as ‘tangible evidence’ of the Foreign Office’s commitment to greater transparency (3).

What’s really transparent, however, is the way that a crisis-plagued Foreign Office discredits Cold War espionage in an attempt to improve its own image. Elsewhere, revelations about Britain’s war in Ireland, or MI5’s spying activities against trade unionists, are geared to make the new elites look benign by comparison. Old Britain is portrayed as such a dark, dank world of class hatred and state corruption, the only possible conclusion is that New Britain is surely a fairer, better place to be.

In truth, New Britain lacks the vision, the coherence and the confidence that the old elites proudly displayed. Today’s elites institutionalise a cynicism towards public life that’s proving highly destructive – especially for the political class itself. It’s worth remembering that Blair’s attempt to galvanise a Shared National Experience with ‘Cool Britannia’ lasted barely six months before ‘ex-Blair supporters’ triggered a ‘not in my name’-style backlash. In the absence of its own positive vision for the future, the only alternative has been to define New Britain against the past.

Documentaries about figures like Philip Larkin may appear irrelevant, but they help to provide New Britain with a positive gloss. Yet this poet-bashing is unlikely to help in the long term. It’s all very well discrediting the gains and the insights from the past, but replacing them with anything better may prove rather illusive.

Instead, a glum cynicism towards public figures and public life in general fills the vacuum. Philip Larkin, you feel, would almost sympathise.

Love Again is shown on Saturday 26 July 2003 on BBC2

Neil Davenport is a contributor to Uncut magazine.

(1) Guardian, 14 July 2003

(2) Observer, 21 April 2002

(3) Guardian, 10 July 2003

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