Book review: ‘Selected Letters of Philip Larkin’ (Anthony Thwaite, ed.)

Selected Letters of Philip LarkinReading other people’s letters is one of my guilty pleasures. I first read this selection of Philip Larkin’s letters in 1993, writing to a friend shortly after I’d begun: ‘So far, the guy seems a bit of a prat.’ But I ended up enjoying the book immensely, Larkin’s prattish moments notwithstanding.

Be warned, there is plenty of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Toryism and jazz in these letters, but there are also plenty of affectionate letters. And there are also many humorous moments. Like this, in which the young Larkin describes beginning work as a librarian in Shropshire

The library is a very small one, I am entirely unassisted in my labours, and spend most of my time handing out tripey novels to morons.

Or this, in which he describes a neighbour playing atonal classical music:

[It s]ounded like a ferry boat trying to get out of a piano factory…

Or this, on the poetry of a future Poet Laureate:

At Ilkley literature festival a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I’ve never felt like shrieking.

The misogyny, racism and xenophobia make uncomfortable reading, and damaged Larkin’s posthumous reputation. The fact that the letters containing them were limited to a relatively small number of recipients made me suspect there was more than an element of puerile, exaggerated, politically incorrect in-joking with ‘the lads’. But I also strongly suspect that Larkin’s misogyny, racism and xenophobia, while not being as extreme as they might sound on a literal reading of these letters, were genuine enough.

Misgivings aside, well worth a second reading. Recommended.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.


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