Alas! Deceived: Alan Bennett reviews Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion

Writers_Life

Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion
Faber, 570 pp, £20.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 571 15174 4

My mother is such a bloody rambling fool.’ wrote Philip Larkin in 1965, ‘that half the time I doubt her sanity. Two things she said today, for instance, were that she had “thought of getting a job in Woolworth’s” and that she wanted to win the football pools so that she could “give cocktail parties”.’ Eva Larkin was 79 at the time so that to see herself presiding over the Pick’n’ Mix counter was a little unrealistic and her chances of winning the football pools were remote as she didn’t go in for them. Still, mothers do get ideas about cocktail parties, or mine did anyway, who’d never had a cocktail in her life and couldn’t even pronounce the word, always laying the emphasis (maybe out of prudery) on the tail rather than the cock. I always assumed she got these longings from women’s magazines or off the television and maybe Mrs Larkin did too, though ‘she never got used to the television’ – which in view of her son’s distrust of it is hardly surprising.

Mrs Larkin went into a home in 1971, a few months after her son had finished his most notorious poem, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. She never read it (Larkin didn’t want to ‘confuse her with information about books’) but bloody rambling fool or not she shared more of her son’s life and thoughts than do most mothers, or at any rate the version he gave her of them in his regular letters, still writing to her daily when she was in her eighties. By turns guilty and grumbling (‘a perpetual burning bush of fury in my chest’), Larkin’s attitude towards her doesn’t seem particularly unusual, though his dutifulness does. Even so, Woolworth’s would hardly have been her cup of tea. The other long-standing lady in Larkin’s life (and who stood for a good deal), Monica Jones, remarks that to the Larkins the least expenditure of effort was ‘something heroic’: ‘Mrs Larkin’s home was one in which if you’d cooked lunch you had to lie down afterwards to recover.’ Monica, one feels, was more of a Woolworth’s supervisor than a counter assistant. ‘I suppose,’ wrote Larkin, ‘I shall become free [of mother] at 60, three years before the cancer starts. What a bloody, sodding awful life.’ His, of course, not hers. Eva died in 1977 aged 91, after which the poems more or less stopped coming. Andrew Motion thinks this is no coincidence.

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