Amis and Larkin: A Friendship Revalued

I’m a big Philip Larkin fan, and I mean big – I have loved reading his poetry since 1995 (for some reason I have both editions of his Collected Poems, the superior chronological version and the baffling as-they-were-published edition), have copies of his prose collections Required Writing, Further Requirements and Trouble At Willow Gables And Other Fictions (note that additional “s” – so post-modern), and I must have read his Life (by Andrew Motion) and Selected  Letters (edited by Anthony Thwaite), I don’t know, at least a dozen times each. I say this not to boast but simply to show that I love Larkin’s poetry and I love reading about him.

You might think he’s a racist sexist terrible bastard, and there’s plenty evidence to back that up. I’m not going to deny that he could act stupidly, even grotesquely, especially in his later years. There’s a quite dreadful recording of him and Monica Jones drunkenly singing “Niggers… niggers… niggers”, from the late 70s or early 80s by which time the drink had really got them both. It’s stomach-turning. All the same, I don’t think that a writer’s life is of much importance in deciding the merit of their work. This isn’t to deny the value of biography, or to argue about “the death of the author” but simply to say that ethical or social concerns rank low on my criteria for judging writers. (H.P. Lovecraft similarly – “Nazi bastard”, Mark Renton says in Trainspotting, “but he can spin a good yarn.”) So no matter – Larkin’s scrupulous standards, his mastery of verse forms, his pessimism, his desire for transcendence, his grouchy-tender capturing of the welfare state, his frank confronting of the elemental truths of life, make him a great writer.

Thus, I constantly enjoy reading him, and reading about him. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert – I don’t know much at all about Yeats, Hardy, Vernon Watkins or Auden, so I can’t really judge his influences and how they work upon him, for example. So let’s just say I’m an enthusiastic amateur on Larkinalia. Recently, however, I have been reading about Kingsley Amis, in his Life and Selected Letters (written and edited, respectively, by Zachary Leader). And what has struck me is that Amis’ role in Larkin’s life is seriously under-represented. It might be said that Larkin’s role in Amis’ life is perhaps given undue weight, given the preponderance of letters to Larkin which make up the first ten years of the Amis Letters, and their use in establishing Amis’ life. (Key figures in Amis’ earlier life are unfortunately lacking as recipients. Amis’ first wife, Hilly, tore up the letters he sent her after their split, while letters to Amis’ other main contemporary, Bruce Montgomery, are deposited in the Bodleian and may not be consulted until after 2035).

However, regardless, there is still I would say a serious, and perhaps deliberate, dilution of the importance of Amis upon Larkin in his official representations by Motion and Thwaite. It would seem clear that Motion, for example, had access to Larkin’s letters to Amis (Larkin, a librarian of course, was a far better letter-keeper than Amis; tragically few of Larkin’s to Amis prior to the mid-70s have survived), and he makes some reference to them in Larkin’s Life, so there is no reason for the sustained diminution – unless it was deliberate, of course.

Reading Amis’ letters makes this clear. First, Amis’ tone and manner suggest how close they are, with their frequent semi-ironic endearments (“dalling”), obscure neologisms, private codes and soul-barings. Amis’ tone is often nearly homoerotic: sometimes mockingly so, but often clearly in simple adoration. In 1946, he says:

I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, brutal, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don’t want anyone else to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of almost violent laughter when talking to you, and because you are savagely uninterested in all the things I am uninterested in.

Larkin’s letters to Amis occasion some of his most hilarious moments, such as when he goes to a tailors and notes their reaction to not wanting a waistcoat: “looking as if I’d asked to have ‘Slay ’em, Bronx’ worked in cerise on the back of the jacket”. Second, the depth, range and frequency of Amis’ correspondence to Larkin suggest that Larkin must have been equally forthcoming, as indeed many reference make clear. Amis’ letters about Hilly’s first pregnancy, the possibility of getting a back-street abortion and their decision to marry are remarkably honest and self-revealing. Larkin’s late letters are justly famous for the comic savagery of their gloom: “God I hate news – can’t watch it – to see these awful shits marching or picketing or saying the ma’er wi’ noo be referred back to thu Na’ional Exe’u’ive is too much for me. Why don’t they show NAKED WOMEN, or PROS AND CONS OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN GIRLS’ SCHOOLS oh for God’s sake Phil can’t you NO I CAN’T”. While Larkin’s Letters are dominated in the early years by those to James Sutton, their constant fixation on D.H. Lawrence and pessimism about women suggest a relationship that did not develop; meanwhile, the Amis letters to Larkin are extremely wide-ranging (on writers ancient and modern, jazz, their own writing, drink, literary gossip, contemporaries and friends, and day-to-day living), with more humour and give-and-take. Third, numerous biographical facts revealed by the Amis Letters show how the relation was closer than Motion suggests. For example, Larkin’s crucial role in revising Lucky Jim is mentioned, but with little sense of his crucial importance to the revisions; his regular visits to Amis hardly register, while his weekend in Paris with Bruce Montgomery gets about two pages; there is no mention of Amis visiting Larkin in Belfast, while his visits to Leicester are only mentioned because of the quote about the inspiration for Lucky Jim. It wAS Amis, indeed, who gave the eulogy at Larkin’s funeral. Fourth, several depredations about Amis’ behaviour are undermined. Motion notes that Amis never visited Larkin in Hull, saying that at one point he cancelled at the last moment, and as if to suggest Larkin’s great offence, says that the invite was never repeated. I think this is nonsense. Motion must surely have known that at this time, Amis’ first marriage had barely survived, after repeated adultery by Amis and a serious affair between Hilly and the journalist Henry Fairlie (coiner of the phrase “the Establishment”), that Sally Amis had recently suffered a fractured skull, and that one of Amis’ girlfriends had recently dropped him. It is little wonder that Amis wished to lick his wounds, alone. But more than this, Amis had a chronic antipathy, even a phobia, to travelling alone. With Hilly looking after the children, it’s unlikely that Amis could travel to Hull without difficulty – thus, the two more often met in London. Either way, I think Motion does Amis a disservice here, and indeed throughout the Life. Zachary Leader goes into detail about another (potential) contretemps, Amis’ caricaturing of Larkin’s companion and lover Monica Jones, in Lucky Jim. Motion suggests that Amis was either astonishingly ignorant or astonishingly careless of Larkin’s feelings towards Jones; Leader on the other hand suggests that Amis well knew both Larkin’s ambivalent attitude about Jones and what he would allow said about her. Leader notes elsewhere about Larkin’s comments on Lucky Jim that he expressed himself freely about sections that made him angry (with typical phrases like “Hideous smell of arse” and “Gruesome aroma of bum”): the absence of any such comments on the portrait of Jones is therefore revealing.

It is true, of course, that Larkin and Amis had a cooling of relations during the 1960s. This is not particularly surprising, given the longevity of their friendship (some forty years). But it is clear from Amis’ letters that the two were extremely close from 1943-1956 or so, and (primarily in an epistolary manner) from 1975-1985. It might be thought that physical distance in the latter period debars it from being a genuine closeness. But the brutal truths, the savage black humour, the shared rants and miscontents, suggest they have their match and equal in the other. While Larkin’s reputation took longer to establish, by the mid-70s he was seen as easily Amis’ equal, and perhaps il miglior fabbro. (Amis’ reputation was then perhaps beginning to slide, with his 1980 novel Russian Hide And Seek considered his worst). This gives their late correspondence a real piquancy, with their ability to talk (and grouse) freely with an equal, both in talent, fame, and experience, and to unburden themselves of all their prejudices, complaints and fears.

Why, then, such a downplaying of Amis on Larkin? What influenced Motion – after all a respect biographer as well as an exceptional poet – in this way? At the risk of making her into a Yoko Ono or Sonia Orwell figure, I think the hand of Monica Jones is clear. Motion makes clear the antipathy between Jones and Amis from the outset; and both in his portrayal of her in the Life and in the subsequent footnotes, his allegiance is clear. In the Life, he says “[w]ith her inability to suffer fools, her slightly pouting mouth and her abrupt speech, she contended with the world with style”, and it’s clear that she was the major source for Larkin’s’ life, meeting so often that Motion decides not to give dates in the footnotes, simply citing it “MJ to author”. It is, of course, hard to work around the feelings of the living when it comes to biographies. But given what we know from subsequent biographical evidence (including the recent Letters To Monica, of which only a sliver appear in the Letters), it seems clear that Jones was hard to love and hard to be around. Thus, I contend, Motion deliberately downplayed Amis and emphasised Jones’ role in the life of Larkin, under the influence of Jones herself. There is little, for example, about the alcoholic intake of Jones during the latter period of Larkin’s life, when it appears that she was matching him, drink for drink, and nothing about the chilling letter Larkin sends her about her unfortunate social behaviours (seen only in Letters To Monica): I say this not to denigrate her but to demonstrate that Motion consistently downplays or elides her negative characteristics. Perhaps this is through kindness, perhaps this is because he simply believes her side of the story, but overall it shows him as partial and weakens his biography.

It rather seems that, while she was alive, there was something of a policy to be nice to Jones and to respect her wishes regarding the presentation of the life of Larkin. Her opinions about Amis prevailed, her less fortunate aspects toned down. But with Martin Amis’ Experience, and the biographical material on Kingsley Amis, the truth of the situation between Larkin and Amis can be reconstructed. It turns out that the two of them truly were old devils, joshing, mocking, grousing, satirising, complaining, leering, deriding and “horsepissing” their way into the annals of literature. “What a feast is awaiting chaps when we’re both dead and our complete letters come out,” Amis wrote at one point in 1956. Damn right.

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3 thoughts on “Amis and Larkin: A Friendship Revalued

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