Wednesday, 30 June 2010
by Adam Gopnik
February 8, 2010
J. D. Salinger’s long silence, and his withdrawal from the world, attracted more than the usual degree of gossip and resentment—as though we readers were somehow owed more than his words, were somehow owed his personal, talk-show presence, too—and fed the myth of the author as homespun religious mystic. Yet though he may seem to have chosen a hermit’s life, Salinger was no hermit on the page. And so his death throws us back from the myth to the magical world of his writing as it really is, with its matchless comedy, its ear for American speech, its contagious ardor and incomparable charm. Salinger’s voice—which illuminated and enlivened these pages for two decades—remade American writing in the fifties and sixties in a way that no one had since Hemingway. (The juvenilia of most American writers since bear the mark of one or the other.) But if it had been Hemingway’s role to make American writing hardboiled, it was Salinger’s to let it be soft, even runny, again.
“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” which appeared here in the issue of April 8, 1950, is an account of the horror and battle shock of the Second World War—which the young Salinger fought during some of its worst days and battles—only to end, amazingly, with the offer of an antidote: the simple, direct, and uncorrupted speech that young Esmé’s letter holds out to the no longer entirely broken narrator. It was the comedy, the overt soulfulness, the high-hearted (to use an adjective he liked) romantic openness of the early Salinger stories that came as such a revelation to readers. The shine of Fitzgerald and the sound of Ring Lardner haunted these pages, but it was Salinger’s readiness to be touched, and to be touching, his hypersensitivity to the smallest sounds and graces of life, which still startles. Suicides and strange deaths happen in his stories—one shattering story is devoted to the back and forth on the telephone between a betrayed husband and the man in bed with his wife at that very moment—but their tone is alive with an appetite for experience as it is, and the certainty that religious epiphanies will arise from such ordinary experience. A typical Salinger hero is the little boy who confuses “kike” with “kite,” in “Down at the Dinghy”—who thinks that his father has been maliciously compared to “one of those things that go up in the air. . . . With string you hold.”
Salinger was an expansive romantic, an observer of the details of the world, and of New York in particular; no book has ever captured a city better than “The Catcher in the Rye” captured New York in the forties. Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk? (One thinks of the man occupying the seat behind Holden Caulfield at Radio City Music Hall, who, watching the Rockettes, keeps saying to his wife, “You know what that is? That’s precision.”) A self-enclosed writer doesn’t listen, and Salinger was a peerless listener: page after page of pure talk flowed out of him, moving and true and, above all, funny. He was a humorist with a heart before he was a mystic with a vision, or, rather, the vision flowed from the humor. That was the final almost-moral of “Zooey,” the almost-final Salinger story to appear in these pages: Seymour’s Fat Lady, who gives art its audience, is all of us.
As for Holden Caulfield, he is so much a part of the lives of his readers that he is more a person to phone up than a character to analyze. A “Catcher” lover in his forties handed Holden’s Christmas journey to his own twelve-year-old son a few years ago, filled with trepidation that time and manners would have changed too much for it to still matter. Not a bit—the boy grasped it to his heart as his father had, as the Rough Guide to his experience, and used its last lines as his yearbook motto. In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Of the three, only “Catcher” defines an entire region of human experience: it is—in French and Dutch as much as in English—the handbook of the adolescent heart. But the Glass family saga that followed is the larger accomplishment. Salinger’s retreat into that family had its unreality—no family of Jewish intellectual children actually spoke quite like this, or revered one of the members quite so uncritically—but its central concern is universal. The golden thread that runs through it is the question of Seymour’s suicide, so shockingly rendered in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” How, amid so much joyful experience, could life become so intolerable to the one figure who seems to be its master?
Critics fretted about the growing self-enclosure of Salinger’s work, about a faith in his characters’ importance that sometimes seemed to make a religion of them. But the isolation of his later decades should not be allowed to obscure his essential gift for joy. The message of his writing was always the same: that, amid the malice and falseness of social life, redemption rises from clear speech and childlike enchantment, from all the forms of unself-conscious innocence that still surround us (with the hovering unease that one might mistake emptiness for innocence, as Seymour seems to have done with his Muriel). It resides in the particular things that he delighted to record. In memory, his writing is a catalogue of those moments: Esmé’s letter and her broken watch; and the little girl with the dachshund that leaps up on Park Avenue, in “Zooey”; and the record of “Little Shirley Beans” that Holden buys for Phoebe (and then sees break on the pavement); and Phoebe’s coat spinning on the carrousel at twilight in the December light of Central Park; and the Easter chick left in the wastebasket at the end of “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”; and Buddy, at the magic twilight hour in New York, after learning from Seymour how to play Zen marbles (“Could you try not aiming so much?”), running to get Louis Sherry ice cream, only to be overtaken by his brother; and the small girl on the plane who turns her doll’s head around to look at Seymour. That these things were not in themselves quite enough to hold Seymour on this planet—or enough, it seems, at times, to hold his creator entirely here, either—does not diminish the beauty of their realization. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Seymour, thinking of van Gogh, tells Buddy that the only question worth asking about a writer is “Were most of your stars out?” Writing, real writing, is done not from some seat of fussy moral judgment but with the eye and ear and heart; no American writer will ever have a more alert ear, a more attentive eye, or a more ardent heart than his.
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
Monday, 28 June 2010
Sunday, 27 June 2010
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I'm glad I can't explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
Twenty-five years after Philip Larkin's death, the view of the English poet as a misogynist appears unfair. A new book of letters to his long-time partner Monica Jones reveals a caring if anguished lover, while those who knew him well remember a gentle – and very witty – man
Sunday 27 June 2010
Most eyes, right now, are on the festival of football that is the World Cup. In Hull, though, a different kind of festival is beginning. Larkin25 is a 25-week-long celebration of the poet Philip Larkin's life and work, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his death. If the organisers know how apt it is to be marking the anniversary of a death rather than a birth – unlike most of us, Larkin didn't start with the death-fear at 40; it clammily took hold of him when he was still in his 20s – they are not letting on. Larkin25 is a determinedly jolly, unironic affair, and the poet it love bombs so enthusiastically would have hated it.
To be fair, lots of perfectly sensible and good things are going to happen: there will be lectures by Andrew Motion, his biographer, and Anthony Thwaite, the editor of his letters, and Tom Courtenay has already performed his acclaimed one-man show about Larkin to help raise money for the statue of the poet that will be unveiled in December at Hull's Paragon station, the starting point for the poet's train journey in The Whitsun Weddings. A box set of his favourite music, entitled Larkin's Jazz, is to be released; an exhibition of his photographs will go on display; the city has organised a walking trail, which takes in, among other places, the branch of Marks & Spencer that inspired the poem "The Large Cool Store" ("But past the heaps of shirts and trousers/ Spread the stands of Modes for Night").
But you can just imagine the yelps of horror some other ideas would have brought on: "Ogh ogh, awwghgh!" Larkin would have written to his girlfriend, Monica Jones, or to his friend, Kingsley Amis about the events for children, for instance – such as the one entitled Super Specs: "Make your own Larkin-inspired glasses with glitz and glam!" Larkin was a famous child-hater; sending him a baby photograph was, he once said, "like sending garlic to Dracula". Or the exhibition of his belongings, which includes his razors, pet toad collection and "trademark" glasses. I don't understand this "trademark" thing – Larkin didn't wear spectacles for effect; he was as blind as a bat – and I think he would have found this irredeemably gruesome.
Worst of all, Hull is to fill up with giant, brightly coloured fibreglass toads, a stunt so loopily against the spirit of the two poems that are their inspiration – "Toads" and "Toads Revisited", in which the squatting toad, impossible to shake off, is both a symbol of work and of the narrator's timid and confining personality – I find myself wondering whether their creators have actually read either one. It's all very strange, as if Ron Glum had been reincarnated as Ronald McDonald. "I'm settling down in Hull all right," wrote Larkin, to the poet DJ Enright on his arrival in the city in 1954 (he'd come to take up a job as university librarian). "Each day I sink a little further." It was, he said, "a frightful dump". But Hull, it would seem, does not bear a grudge. Just stick his face on this glossy leaflet, and we'll let bygones be bygones.
All the same, it's hard to see Larkin25 as anything other than a Good Thing. After the publication of Thwaite's Selected Letters and Andrew Motion's biography in the early 1990s, there was an outpouring of loathing for Larkin the man; a hysteria of disapproval that some feared would eventually destroy his reputation as a poet, too. Painfully, we learned of his racism, his supposed miserliness and misogyny, the juggling of his women, the porn, the booze, the wanking. The sensible critics were, of course, able to separate the work from the life; for them, the poems would sail on, serene and beautiful. But alas, sensible critics seemed, at the time, to be far too thin on the ground. Tom Paulin famously referred to "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became". Professor Lisa Jardine, having dispatched Larkin as a "casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist", gleefully noted that "we don't tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English. The Little Englandism he celebrates sits uneasily within our revised curriculum." And then there was cuddly old Alan Bennett. The playwright just about managed to stick up for the poems – "an armada, sparkling and intact" – but, in a long review of Motion's biography he accused Larkin of looking like a rapist and Reginald Halliday Christie, the Rillington Place serial killer. The famous Monitor arts programme in which Larkin was seen church-going gave Bennett the creeps, for the poet could have been "on the verge of exposing himself". As for the 25 volumes of his diaries – destroyed after his death by his secretary and former lover Betty Mackereth, on the instruction of Monica Jones – well, had they survived "one might have learned whether this shy, tormented man ever came close to the dock".
Two decades on and it is clear that the poems are safe. In the universities, where he continues to be taught, it is presumably understood that, as John Updike put it, the drama of his greatest poems hinges on the breaking of Larkin's crustiness, his prejudices, followed by "a generous, deep-breathing self-transcendence"; in other words, that the work has everything to do with life, and also nothing at all.
Meanwhile, outside academia, Larkin remains the most quoted, the bestselling and the most beloved of English poets. His poems – scrupulous, precise and ascendingly lovely – are true and wise: they speak to us of the big things, of birth, marriage and, above all, death. "You start by arguing in your head with those who call him minor," says the writer and poet Blake Morrison, who knew Larkin. "No, you think, as late-20th-century poets go, he is one of the best. And then you think, no, fuck it, as 20th-century poets go, he is one of the best… and that keeps on expanding all the time. He is a great poet. The problem for me, now, is getting him out of my head."
Larkin25 acknowledges this "abundance of caring" (Updike again) that Larkin's work arouses in his admirers. But it might mark the beginning of a reassessment of Larkin the man, too. Beyond noting that his private utterances were in marked contrast to his public behaviour, which was ever polite, Larkin's racism is uncomfortable and indefensible, even when you put it in the context of his times. The charges of misogyny, though, are about to start looking a whole lot more flimsy. In the autumn, Faber will publish Larkin's correspondence to Monica Jones, a selection of the surviving 7,500 pages of letters and cards he wrote to her between 1946, when they first met, and 1985, the year of his death. (Monica lived in Leicester, where she taught English at the university; she only began sharing Larkin's home shortly before he died.) These letters, discovered after her death, are highly personal and, being so great in number, they chronicle Larkin's feelings more intimately than anything we have read before. Like the Selected Letters, they catch his wit, and his abiding sadness. But they also reveal Larkin's deep love and admiration for a woman who was clever, eccentric, loud, unusual, flamboyant, opinionated and strong. In my experience, misogynists tend not to go a bundle for women with minds of their own.
It's obvious to me that it was not women Larkin hated, but the idea of marriage to one – and that seems fair enough. At his home in Norfolk, Anthony Thwaite, Larkin's friend and the editor both of the Selected Letters and of this new volume, laughs. "Yes!" he says. "Marriage: it's like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of your life, isn't it?" Thwaite believes that Larkin loved women. "His closest friends were women: Judy Egerton, Jean Hartley, his publisher. He liked Ann [Thwaite's wife, a biographer] very much. Winifred Arnott [a colleague on whom Larkin was sweet] and Ruth Bowman [his fiancée until 1950] are both still alive, and they keep the memory of him very warm. I think he was frightened of sex, but I think a lot of men are; it's a very easy thing to be frightened of."
What was Larkin like? "Charming. Rather a shy manner. Tall. Lovely smile. Lovely sense of humour. Our daughters remember him with enormous fondness. He used to call them the Chorus Line. He might have loathed children; he might have said: 'Oh, they throw food around, and worse!' But he was terribly good with them. Lucy used to do card tricks, and he'd be so impressed. I have a strong memory of Alice and Philip on their hands and knees, looking for a bagatelle ball." What was Monica like? "I was rather surprised by her at first, because she seemed… not Philip's sort. But I got to like her. Quite loud; strong opinions; very heavily made up – this slashed mouth. She was a performer. After he died, she went into an awful decline: drunk by lunchtime, piles of washing-up everywhere… And then, after she died, the letters started turning up all over the place: drawers, mattresses, sofas."
Thwaite makes me lunch and then takes me upstairs to the room where he has spent the past five years working on Letters to Monica. The page proofs are just in and, for an all-too brief time, I get to flip through them. It's tantalising. I cannot wait for publication day; the very thought of it makes my fingertips tingle. The first thing you notice are the endearments. Larkin is a seal, and she is a rabbit, a beloved "burrow-dweller", his precious "bun" (she is also a "sacred cat", and a "clever little lamb"). And the letters are often signed "Love you always."
There are plenty of dispatches from inside Larkin's head: anguished, indecisive, plaintive, and saucy (he tells her about a fantasy he has been having in which she is wearing a particular pair of black knickers, a pair with a hole in them). But there is also gossip, cricket (a mutual passion), jokes (they use a silly, shared argot: "haddock" for headache, "bogray" for buggery, and so on), an amazing bunch of first drafts ("Church Going", "Myxomatosis", "An Arundel Tomb") and, above all, book talk.
At one point, Larkin writes to her about his hero, DH Lawrence (believe it or not, Larkin used to mow his lawn wearing a DH Lawrence T-shirt) and his attitude to women. Monica's response is to the point: "What he's really asking for is a sweet old little dear, who shams yielding wifely stuff and, tough as steel underneath, deceives and manages him for his own good; a Woman's Page person, and he really deserved one." Atta girl.
I don't have much time and, in any case, I do not wish to be too much the literary burglar, so I ask Thwaite about one particular letter, in which, so I've heard, Larkin gives Monica advice about her manner – painfully honest-sounding advice. Does it really exist? "Oh, yes," he says. "I know the one." He riffles through the enormous pile of papers, and then he hands it to me. "You need to read it in context," he says. "The build-up is extremely loving."
He is right about this; Larkin, in a state about what he is shortly to do, and confessing openly that he would never be able to say it in person unless he was drunk, is at some pains to strike the right tender note. But still, what follows leaves me short of breath. "Revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it," he writes. "You've no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice." He advises Monica to speak only two sentences at a time, and then to stop and await a response from whoever it is she is talking to. She should abandon altogether her "harsh, didactic voice" and use only "the soft musical one", the one he presumably knows better than most. I am sick at heart on Monica's behalf. Only then, just as he does in the poems, he seems to move on and up. "You notice that I don't say anything about what you say," he writes, the word "what" underlined.
All I can tell you, having looked through this vast manuscript, is that Larkin and Monica seem to me to have had, if nothing else, an extraordinarily frank relationship, and this suggests – doesn't it? – a certain equality. Certainly, when, at one point, Monica believes that she might be pregnant, they seem equally terrified. As he wrote to her in September 1957: "We are a queer pair, each with vast, almost complementary drawbacks." Who, I wonder, was more frightened of whom?
If you take the trouble to look, you don't even need to go to these letters (until publication day, they can be read only at the Bodleian library, Oxford) to find a different Larkin to the miserablist, misogynist, semi-recluse of popular mythology. No one is ever what one person says they are, or not entirely.
My own pilgrimage to Hull begins at the new Hull History Centre, which houses many of his papers. Here you can see Larkin's notebooks – his entire poetic output, complete with pencil workings, fills just eight slim volumes – and the thousands of letters he wrote to his mother over the course of her lifetime. But you can also look at his books, and the first thing you notice is how many of them are by women. Barbara Pym is present, of course (Larkin championed her work even after her publisher abandoned her), and his beloved Gladys Mitchell, author of Laurels are Poison and other detective novels. But so, too, are Mary McCarthy and Rosamond Lehmann, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Alison Lurie. He admired McCarthy very much. And when you flip through the hundreds of photographs Larkin left, you see that the huge majority are of this cockatoo of a woman called Monica, and in a single glance you realise what an extraordinary couple they must have made: he so soberly dressed in mackintosh and bicycle clips, and her so exquisitely and loudly turned out: extraordinary hats and wacky stockings, mannish pinstripe trousers and daringly (for the time) short skirts. Monica did not wear clothes, she wore outfits. People must have stared. No wonder Kingsley Amis loathed her, and used her as a model for the neurotic, manipulative Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. Larkin, on the other hand, dedicated his (1955) collection, The Less Deceived, to her.
After I've finished at the archives, I go to see Jean Hartley, who, with her husband George, ran the tiny, Hull-based Marvell Press, which published The Less Deceived. Larkin25 includes a new play about Hartley's life, Wrong Beginnings, which will be staged at Hull Truck Theatre – "It's very sensationalised!" she says, looking thrilled – and to coincide with this honour, Faber has reprinted her 1989 memoir, Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me.
Like Thwaite, Hartley is insistent that Larkin loved women; nor will she go along with the idea of him as a miser. When she won a place at university as a mature student, Larkin, knowing how hard-up Hartley was, opened a book account for her, and placed a fat sum in it. She is full of stories about him: the time they went to see Louis Armstrong together in Bridlington; the time Larkin arrived at a party clutching a bottle of crème de menthe. She reminds me – so unlikely seeming, this – that he thought Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" the best song ever written. Larkin, who once described his physique as being like that of a "pregnant salmon", hated dancing, but at departmental Christmas parties, he would be sure to ask every woman in the room to dance: cleaners, caterers, library assistants. No one was left out.
"He was the funniest man I've ever met," she says. "He could mimic anyone. He was just this fund of jokes. Visiting me and George was a nice thing he used to do after his shopping. He'd arrive on his bike, his haversack full of groceries, and he'd spend the afternoon with us. He would make forays to London, and he'd come back and tell us all about it. We were always agog."
The image of Larkin as the hermit of Hull, an image the poet encouraged, was never quite accurate. In her memoir, Hartley includes an old diary entry from 1967: "Had marvellous evening playing Armstrong, Fitzgerald, 'Mr Tambourine Man', etc. Read Rossetti, Conquest, de Vries and talked about Joyce. Reminisced. Philip gave us a poem. Left at 4am."
Hartley hopes that Larkin25, which she has helped to organise, will reflect this Larkin: the one who sometimes saw off his guests at 4am, rather than the one who used to lie awake at that hour, "the bedroom hot as a bakery", full of fear and regret ("Love Again"). She remains intensely proud of having been the unlikely first publisher of The Less Deceived. "I loved him so much as a person anyway, but the fact that the poems have become so revered and popular…" Her eyes crinkle. "It's wonderful." She wants to know if I have been to the cemetery. "I think you should: get the taxi to take you." There are, she tells me, three graves that I must see. So this is what I do.
It's a bleak spot. Flat and charmless, hard by a clogged road, Cottingham's municipal cemetery is as utilitarian – and as contemplative – as a traffic roundabout. Its low gravestones are not old; they belong, mostly, to a Godless age, and none is elaborate or beautiful – no winged angels, no lichen-covered cherubs, no trailing ivy. It's a blessing that the sun is shining. But you would no sooner use the word "dappled" of this place than you would come here to read a love letter.
I get out of the car. I know exactly what to look for; Hartley was precise. Even so, it's affecting to see this triangle of headstones for the first time. Not only are Larkin and Monica here; so, too, is Maeve Brennan. Maeve was Larkin's colleague at the Brynmor Jones Library, and saw him almost every day for 23 years; their affair, tender but sometimes agonised, lasted for 18. She died in 2003, at the age of 73. When, in 1993, Andrew Motion published his life of Larkin, thus revealing the complexities of his sexual relationships, it was Maeve, gentle and dark-eyed, who had reviewers gnashing their teeth. It was generally felt that lipsticked Monica was tough as old boots, and could look after herself. But how must Maeve, a devout Catholic, have felt when it finally became clear that, having given him the best years of her life, Larkin would not marry her; that he would never give up Monica? The brute!
The inconvenient truth, however, is that Maeve herself did not share, let alone invite, this indignation. Years later, she would tell people that knowing Larkin had been wonderful, the most enriching relationship of her life. According to Jean Hartley, Maeve and Larkin made the most jolly of couples, for all that Maeve always knew he had Monica Jones on the go elsewhere.
Anyway, the shape that these three formed in life, painfully three-pronged, they now continue in death, and perhaps indefinitely; or at least until the end of days, when no one reads poetry any more, and this spot, bone-crammed to the brim, fills up with new names, new stones – or, perhaps, with landfill, with plastic bottles and flatscreen televisions. One of these three, of course, would have predicted that very outcome. He thought it might happen in his lifetime. "It seems, just now/ To be happening very fast/ Despite all the land left free/ For the first time I feel somehow/ That it isn't going to last/ That before I snuff it, the whole/ Boiling will be bricked in…"
I go to his grave first. It is very white, rather like his face, which he once described as "an egg sculpted in lard, wearing goggles". It says: "Philip Larkin, 1922-1985, writer." There are no flowers, none of the candles and palm crosses that adorn some other headstones, only a scattering of curled, brown leaves. I can't help thinking that it is exactly the kind of grave that Larkin would have expected to end up in.
Next, a stout, grey-white stone; it's the colour (and shape) of old-fashioned underwear. This marks the resting place of Monica, who died in 2001, having lived on without Larkin, in his ugly modern house, with his tweed jacket still hanging over the back of a chair, for 16 long, miserable, drunken years. Hartley told me that after Monica's death it was left to Maeve to make sure Monica got this stone; she had no family, and a solicitor who seemed to be dragging his feet.
Last of all, I track back to a shiny, black headstone. Maeve. She is buried with another man, one she met after Larkin, and his name and dates come first. But what's this? With a start – Jean Hartley did not warn me – I see that Maeve's epitaph consists only of the last line of "An Arundel Tomb". "What will survive of us is love," it says. The engraved letters are gold, like wedding rings.
Philip Larkin died of cancer in December 1985. "I am going to the inevitable," he said to the nurse who was holding his hand. The funeral was held on a day so foggy that Kingsley Amis and his ex-wife, Hilly, mistook Newark for Doncaster, and got off their train too soon (they were rescued by Andrew Motion, who yelled at them to get back on). "The church is full," Blake Morrison recorded in his diary afterwards. "But of local people and fellow library workers, not literati. Monica doesn't show up, but has helped choose the hymns – or did Philip have all that planned?" Monica did not show up because she was too full of sorrow, and thus too full of drink; but Maeve was there, and Betty Mackereth, who, a few weeks later, would spend an afternoon in Larkin's office, pushing his diaries through the rapacious jaws of the university paper shredder.
When I get back to London, I go to see Andrew Motion; his forthcoming lecture in Hull is entitled "The Afterlife of Philip Larkin", and I want to know what he is going to say. We have a long and interesting talk. He tells me about his first encounter with the poet (they met when Motion took a teaching job at Hull University), who grinned broadly when the younger man revealed that his father was a brewer; and about his first visit to Larkin's house in Newland Park, where they judged a poetry competition organised by the Hull Daily Mail (Larkin looked forlornly at the entries, and said: "I could win this!").
"He was paternal to me," says Motion. "Very, very sweet, funny, kind, and funny again. Funniest man I've met by a mile. I often make myself laugh thinking about a letter in which he said: 'I feel like the Israelites in the desert coming across manna, and thinking: what the fuck is this?'" Later, Motion went to live in Oxford – he shared a house with his friend, the novelist Alan Hollinghurst – and Larkin would sometimes visit them. "Red letter days!" says Motion.
Motion regarded the writing of Larkin's biography as "one of the most important things I'll ever be asked to do in my life", and he still feels the same way about it now. But in that case, wasn't it ghastly having to deliver up the women, and the porn, and the racism, for all that Thwaite had prepared the way with the letters? "Of all the people I've ever met, he was the person who felt the least hesitation about revealing his personality, warts and all," Motion says. "I thought that to write an honest book would be the greatest tribute; that his spirit would respect it, and that it would come out anyway, so best not to equivocate." Writing the life, which took seven years, got him down sometimes: "I felt so responsible, and so loving of him; it bent my own life out of shape for a while." In the weeks prior to publication, however, he was consoled first by a dream he had in which Larkin presented him with a garland of hay. "I woke up, and I thought, not hay, but cut grass [the title of one of Larkin's poems]. I know it sounds silly, but it meant something to me."
And then, more bizarrely, Motion was consoled by a cassette that was sent to him by Larkin's hearing doctor, Raymond Cass, who was also a spiritualist. When Motion played the tape, above the squeaking and rushing noises, a voice very like Larkin's could be heard. The voice said that he was spending his time in the next world "tramping". What did he think of Motion's book? "Very satisfactory," said the voice.
Motion thinks Larkin's letters to Monica will deepen our understanding of the poet, though he finds their match less surprising than some. "You could see why he'd want her. She was very funny, no bullshit, sexy. I think they had fun, though by the end she was like Miss Havisham: incontinent, drunk, smoking, ash all over the manuscripts. 'He was a bugger,' she would say. 'He was a bugger, but I loved him.' She was complicated and fascinating; we used to have these very feisty conversations about Wordsworth. No wonder she was such a problem for Kingsley. But it's interesting that Larkin loved her, that he wasn't put off her."
When Motion's book was finished, Monica was enthusiastic. So, too, was Maeve. "Maeve hadn't let me read any of Larkin's letters to her, and that was a defect of the book. Then she read my manuscript, and she said: 'Is it too late? Come and see me, and I'll tell you everything.' In a dark part of my mind, I wondered whether, when they finally went to bed [Maeve's Catholicism meant that, for ages, she would not sleep with Larkin] that was an end of it. I think it probably was. On Philip's part, you see, there was this intensely romantic glamorisation of delay and yearning." His voice is very warm now. "He was a tremendously yearning person."
When I leave Motion's office, a shower has just ended and the sun has come out; the pavements shine, the horse chestnut trees drip, the air smells earthy and fresh. I find that I am smiling. It's one of those numinous, rising moments that Larkin was so good at capturing: the glum person (and this is me, often) suddenly left unaccountably happy – or if not happy (let's not get carried away) then at least able to find consolation amidst the din, and what he would have called "the funk". Golden letters in a graveyard; dripping horse chestnut trees. Life is full of these small blessings, and for all his ginny loneliness and personal despair, Larkin knew enough to celebrate them, on our behalf if not his own. We were so lucky to have him – though he is, of course, with us still.
Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me, by Jean Hartley, is published by Faber Finds, price £14; to order it for £13.50 with free UK p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop
Middleton Hall, University of Hull
Sunday 27 June 2010
This December it will be 25 years since Philip Larkin died. In the city of Hull, where he spent the last 30 years of his life, 25 weeks of commemorations have just begun. Toads and shows splatter the programme (www.larkin25.co.uk), which is odd, since the lauded poet and jazz-loving librarian seems to have held neither in high regard.
The list of things that Larkin seemed not to like – if compiled from the text of Tom Courtenay's one-man show, the revised version of Pretending to Be Me – would be long. It would include children, family life and fellow poet Ted Hughes (described as looking like "a Christmas present from Easter Island"), as well as "the toad work" and theatre (he joyfully realises that you do not have to leave the bar when the interval ends).
But, as Courtenay's ghost-raising performance unfolds, so too does a profoundly Chekhovian vision of tragicomic, wry, hopeful hopelessness. Larkin's words may probe the core of our shared lonelinesses and death dreads, yet, leaving the auditorium, those who knew him agree: "That's exactly how he was – a very funny man." Bring on those giant sculpted toads!
Saturday, 26 June 2010
Beguiled by the Lit & Phil
Neil Tennant's favourite Newcastle library is a reminder of what a rich environment can do
Friday 25 June 2010 21.00
Just at the point where it felt that Neil Tennant – Pet Shop Boy, public intellectual, "critical friend" of Elton John and the Liberal Democrats alike – couldn't get any higher in my estimation, I found out recently that he is the most famous member of Newcastle's Literary & Philosophical Society.
A few years ago he was filmed in its 1825 Grade II-listed home reminiscing about his teenage membership of the Lit & Phil, a library and meeting room in which he could wander and think, and occupy the part of his mind that wasn't set on becoming an international pop star. What I remember most about that interview is how strong was his sense of indebtedness, both to his native city and to the kind of place in which you can at once anchor yourself and fly away: a place like home, which is all the more valuable for not being home.
In a spirit of pilgrimage I visited the Lit & Phil for the first time last weekend. The tone of this trip was pretty much, "Neil Tennant may have held the book I'm holding in my hands right now!" – but my sense of awe, if not quite my dignity, remained intact.
There were Thermos flasks in the corner, with a sign inviting browsers to fill a mug, take a biscuit from the tin, then press the lid back down (firmly), and drop 80p in the honesty box. An impassioned member of a local history group tried to convey to his colleagues what it is like to be homeless and penniless and then to have your life saved by literacy (he was talking about himself). A young father kept his children rapt without the aid of "soft play". A man and woman* in another corner gossiped knowingly about local things**.
Around the corner is the beautiful new Newcastle public library, modelled on the "Idea Store" concept that has been successfully trialled in libraries in the East End of London. In its lightness and spaciousness it resembles the kind of 1960s socialist-paradise library that I grew up using. It is, rightly, as inclusive in design as possible; it could be as easily mistaken for an art gallery as for an upmarket shopping arcade.
The impression it gave, like the Idea Stores and like my local branch library, was one of fussy facilitation rather than transformation. The trend for libraries to serve as a Which? magazine for consumers of council services may be an improvement on the old stuffiness of reading rooms, where old men went to keep warm and read the Morning Star on a long pole. But is it a place where you are implicitly trusted – a place that gives you a fundamental sense of peace the minute you walk inside? I'm not sure.
The Lit & Phil is a charity, having being formed in 1793 as a private members' institution. It is free to enter and to use, but not to borrow books from, making it a civic-private hybrid of the kind that the Con-Libs want to see more of. Its freedom from the perceived need for all public services to fit a model of consumer choice means that it can stay as true to its original form as possible while keeping its appeal constant and wide.
Whether this means it will survive for longer than its municipal equivalent in the face of spending cuts depends on the loyalty of its members. But you can bet that those members are fully aware that the Lit & Phil is something to be cherished and preserved. They repay the trust invested in them, by keeping their phones switched off without being asked, by keeping their cups of tea a good distance away from the books.
There's plenty of room for optimism. I wonder whether, finally, it's beginning to sink in among policymakers that the richness of people's lives depends on the richness of their environment, and not on the idea that some are doomed to be born thick. David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us should be read by anyone persisting with that myth.
Malcolm Gladwell has already exercised this theory in his book Outliers. The most moving chapters concern two would-be "geniuses" from working-class backgrounds, one of whom never manages to graduate due to his social and geographic isolation and chronic penury, while the other is on course to succeed due to being part of an accelerated learning programme at a specialist school.
There needs to be a return of focus towards what the writer and academic Raymond Williams called "the articulation of what men have actually seen and known and felt". "Any restriction of the freedom of individual contribution," he wrote, "is actually a restriction of the resources of the society." To get from Neil Tennant to Raymond Williams and back in one train of thought, you need to learn what people have seen and known and felt. You need libraries.
* Terry and Val
Mark Lawson on Alan Plater: 'Bright, socialist and proudly northern'
Throughout his long and varied career the TV writer helped maintain high standards across the industry
Friday 25 June 2010 17.01
Alan Plater, who has died of cancer, was a notably versatile writer. Frequently employed on police series, his career spanned pioneering episodes of Z Cars and Softly Softly to an episode of ITV's Lewis screened in the final months of his life.
This was appropriate because, as well as being one of British TV's key dramatists, he also operated for five decades as a sort of drama cop.
As president of the Writers' Guild and a willing media pundit, Plater policed the schedules and statements of broadcasting executives, as well as the opportunities and conditions for fellow scriptwriters.
He kept the tone and behaviour of the industry higher than it might otherwise have been. Plater refused to accept that multi-channel television and the popularity of Simon Cowell's dancing dogs made it necessary to abandon the values of the days in which he made his name - when television was inventing itself and strands such as The Wednesday Play were a public event.
Z Cars was credited with introducing contemporary speech and themes to TV drama, and topicality was one part of Plater's talent. But his favourite register as a writer was a tough-edged nostalgia, reflecting his lifelong obsession with traditional jazz.
Many TV dramas – including The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, starring Judi Dench – were set in the past or had protagonists who spiritually belonged there, such as the hero of The Beiderbecke Affair and The Beiderbecke Tapes, his very successful comedy crime romps for Yorkshire TV.
He wrote as he spoke: bright, funny, kind, socialist, proudly northern. Yorkshire and Durham were his home counties as a writer – he had been born in Jarrow but grew up in Hull – and he created scripts for stage and screen about many of their major industries: coal mining, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Boycott.
In common with other northern writers of his generation – Jack Rosenthal and Alan Bennett – Plater had an ear for the musicality, spikiness and euphemism of talk in the upper regions of England.
His TV series Trinity Tales (1975) was a brilliant northern modernisation of The Canterbury Tales, which clearly influenced later present-day adaptations of Chaucer and Shakespeare on television.
Structurally, though, his writing was notable for the variety of territory it covered: from sitcoms (Oh No, It's Selwyn Froggitt!), through adaptations of novels – classic (Fortunes of War) and modern (A Very British Coup) – to stage plays. Peggy for You, a bio-drama about his eccentric agent Margaret Ramsay, gave Maureen Lipman a West End hit.
In an industry vulnerable to fashion, he remained in demand until the very end, with various outstanding commitments which, like the dedicated freelance professional he had always been, he determined to try to meet despite medical inconvenience. Joe Maddison's War, a second world war drama based on his grandfather's life, will be screened later this year.
In common with much of his work, it can be expected to look with wry and intelligent nostalgia at the past. Plater's fear would have been that we will soon stare with historical incredulity at the kind of TV drama-writing career he was able to have.
Friday, 25 June 2010
Plater, 75, wrote novels and for film and theatre, but will be best remembered for a profilic body of television drama spanning six decades, starting with TV play The Referees for BBC North in 1961.
His final TV drama, Joe Maddison's War, starring Kevin Whately and Robson Green and set on the eve of the second world war in the north-east, where Plater was born, is currently in post-production for ITV.
Plater was born in Jarrow in 1935 and moved with his family as a young child to Hull, where he grew up.
He studied architecture at Newcastle University and worked for a short time in the profession before turning to a writing career.
In the 1960s and 1970s he wrote for BBC and ITV single drama strands including Play for Today, Armchair Theatre and The Wednesday Play, as well penning episodes of Z Cars and its spin-off, Softly Softly.
Plater will perhaps be best remembered for the period in the mid- to late 1980s when he created The Beiderbecke Affair – and its follow-ups The Beiderbecke Tapes and The Beiderbecke Connections – and adapted Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War novels and Chris Mullen's political thriller A Very British Coup for TV.
In the past 20 years Plater wrote episodes of dramas including Midsomer Murders, Dalziel and Pascoe and Lewis, as well as creating The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.
Plater's agent Alexandra Cann told the BBC that he had been "very robust" until the final week of his life when he was admitted to a London hospice.
Cann said Joe Maddison's War would be a "fitting tribute" to the writer, who saw the drama go into production.
Plater was awarded a CBE in 2005. In the same year he collected the Dennis Potter award for writing at the Baftas and two years later was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
I am stuck in traffic in a taxicab
which is typical
and not just of modern life
mud clambers up the trellis of my nerves
must lovers of Eros end up with Venus
muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you
how I hate disease, it's like worrying
that comes true
and it simply must not be able to happen
in a world where you are possible
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me
From The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Muldoon describes the way he gives readings of his poems, exploring the way the writer is a medium through which poems come into being. He explains his method of writing poetry: beginning with an image, the pattern and idea of the poem are discovered throughout the course of writing. Muldoon argues that a poem is a revelation of some description, mimetic to a process of discovery, and can be a momentary clarification from the general confusion of life.
Klaff and Muldoon go on to discuss some of his poems, the language that he uses and how his pastoral childhood influenced his writing. Muldoon argues that since many people lack the necessary education to read poetry, many come to a poem with expectations that are most likely to be disappointed. He believes that people should come to a poem and determine what it requires of them, not the other way round. One has to discover, just as the poet had to, the meaning of the poem. Muldoon ends by exploring what makes a poet, discussing his teaching and the concept of posterity.
Things We Said Today
Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)
Rescue Her Tears
Things We Said Today played real slow. Went down well. Some excellent bluesmen in tonight playing Sun House and Stormy Monday Blues.
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
A self-portrait by French painter Edouard Manet wearing a bowler hat sold for more than $34 million, a record for his works.
But the sale of Manet à la palette, painted 1878-79, came in toward the low end of its estimate at Sotheby's auction house in London on Tuesday. It was one of only two self-portraits by the artist, Sotheby's said.
The previous record for a Manet was about $25 million.
Other sales at Sotheby's sale of Impressionist and modern art:
•Arbres à collioure by French painter André Derain, $25 million.
•Odalisques jouant aux dames by Henri Matisse, $18.5 million.
A Bonhams auction of impressionist and modern art on Tuesday yielded disappointing results, with Marc Chagall's La revolution and Pablo Picasso's Portrait de Mr Minguell failing to sell.
Christie's in London has more art on the block Wednesday, including one of Claude Monet's celebrated water lily paintings and Picasso's 1903 Portrait d'Angel Fernandez de Soto.
By DENNIS HEVESI
June 20, 2010
Flash Gordon fires his ray gun to blast a path toward Ming the Merciless, tyrant of the doomed planet Mongo.
Secret Agent Corrigan crosses swords with his Carpathian nemesis as he rescues the shapely Russian spy Karla Kopak.
Luke Skywalker straddles a winged serpent to swoop down the Great Well of the distant planet Kabal.
Those are among the thousands of images Al Williamson sketched as one of America’s pre-eminent artists of comic books and newspaper comic strips.
Mr. Williamson died on June 12 in upstate New York, his wife, Cori, said. He was 79.
In a career that lasted more than 50 years, Mr. Williamson worked for nearly every major comics publisher, including EC, Marvel, King, Classics Illustrated, Dark Horse and Dell.
“He was one of the more sublimely talented artists to work in mainstream comics,” said Tom Spurgeon, editor of the online magazine Comics Reporter. “His men were handsome, his women were beautiful, and the landscapes he drew — alien or westerns or battlefields — always seemed lushly authentic. He made panels you could lose yourself in.”
Mark Schultz, author of “Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic” (Flesk Publications, 2009), a collection of Mr. Williamson’s Flash Gordon images, offered a similar assessment.
“What made his work unique is that he incorporated the fluid motion of cinema into his drawings,” Mr. Schultz said. “No other illustrator or cartoonist has approached his ability to create an illusion of action.”
Mr. Williamson is probably best known for his interpretations of Flash Gordon, the interstellar adventurer created by Alex Raymond in the mid-1930s. Mr. Williamson illustrated Flash Gordon comic books in the 1960s and returned to the character in 1980, drawing an adaptation of the Flash Gordon motion picture released that year. In the 1990s, he produced a Flash Gordon series for Marvel and later contributed to the Sunday strip.
Mr. Williamson first made his professional mark at 17 as the youngest contributor to EC, the publisher of somewhat notorious horror tales, as well as combat stories and science fiction. He specialized in illustrations for EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles.
For 13 years, starting in 1967, Mr. Williamson drew the newspaper strip “Secret Agent Corrigan,” another adaptation of a character originated by Raymond in the 1930s, first known only as Secret Agent X-9.
When George Lucas, producer of the “Star Wars” movies, was asked who should draw the comics version, he turned to the man whose Flash Gordon images he greatly admired. With “The Empire Strikes Back” due for release in 1980, Mr. Williamson began working on Marvel’s comic book versions of “Star Wars,” as well as a newspaper strip.
Alfonso Williamson was born in Manhattan on March 21, 1931, one of two children of Sally and Alfonso Williamson. His father, of Scottish descent, was a citizen of Colombia, and soon after his son was born the family moved to Bogotá.
When the boy was 9, his mother took him to the movies. He saw a chapter in the “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” serial, was enraptured, and started sketching scenes from memory.
The family returned to New York when Alfonso was 13. He took classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in Manhattan (now the School of Visual Arts), and was later hired by EC.
Mr. Williamson’s first wife, the former Arlene Sattler, died in 1977. In addition to his wife of 32 years, the former Cori Pasquier, he is survived by his sister, Liliana Gonzalez Williamson; a daughter, Valerie Lalor; and a son, Victor.
The last Flash Gordon images drawn by Mr. Williamson show the hero leading rebels in an attack on Ming’s mountain fortress, then dueling with Ming until the tyrant leaps into a volcanic crater to avoid being captured.
“Which, of course, allows him to return another day,” Mr. Schultz said. “You never want to show the reader the body.”
22 June 2010
By Terry Kelly
ELVIS Costello burst onto the music scene at the height of the punk rock movement in 1977.
But despite his snarling vocal delivery and edgy attitude, it quickly became apparent there was much more to him than his spiky hair and rapid-fire songs suggested.
The man born Declan Patrick MacManus has explored country and classical music, and collaborated with artists far removed from his punk roots.
His debut album, My Aim Is True, was a musically various affair, running the gamut from all-out rage (I'm Not Angry) to highly melodic, tortured love song (Alison).
Subsequent records were often fast and furious affairs, but there were always signs the former computer operator wanted to break out of the musical straitjacket punk imposed on him.
Four years after his debut, Costello released Almost Blue, an album of country covers. In truth, he had more in common with classic country singer George Jones than Johnny Rotten.
But anxieties about his eclecticism still rumble on, with many English rock critics continuing to doubt the value of his wide musical palette.
When we caught up with him ahead of his forthcoming show at The Sage Gateshead, we asked if this bothers him.
Costello's answer is terse: "Not really. I'm having too much fun."
But what about his complex lyrics?
Are they the result of one of rock music's great chameleons poring over English poetry anthologies?
"I have read poetry in the past," he says, "but I write words to be sung, which is perhaps why I released five albums without a word of the lyrics being printed on the jackets.
"I don't strive to be clever with words. These are the words that come to me. They are largely driven by emotion or even humour.
"You can read them if you wish, but they sound better than they look."
Costello's father, Ross MacManus, was a band singer, and there are reports he once performed at The Buffs club in Jarrow.
"My dad played a lot of places in the North East, so that could be true," he says. "He worked very hard, covered a lot of miles and has great tales of those clubs.
"A couple of times when I was a teenager, I carried his gear and even sat in with him. You learn a lot without realising it."
In a strange twist, MacManus Snr would also brush shoulders with Burt Bacharach, with whom his son would collaborate decades later.
"He was on the Royal Command Performance in 1963, the one the Beatles were on. You can imagine that this was pretty exciting.
"It was only later that I found out that Burt Bacharach was also on that show. He played piano for Marlene Dietrich."
Costello's last studio album, Secret Profane & Sugarcane, was a rootsy, country-flavoured affair.
So what can fans expect at The Sage, on Wednesday, June 30, where he will appear with The Sugarcanes, who he calls "as fine a band as you may ever see"?
"We play some tunes from our last record, but new songs such as Jimmie Standing In The Rain and A Slow Drag With Josephine have been going over biggest at recent shows.
"Some of my best-known songs have a brand new feel. Everyday I Write The Book now has some great harmony singing from Jim Lauderdale and Jerry Douglas, and we have a few songs in the show that you would never expect to hear with this band."
Tickets for the show, priced £35 and £32, are still available from 443 4661.