Andrew Motion on Philip Larkin

I’ve just been lucky enough to attend a lecture in which Motion talked about Larkin for over an hour, and then read and discussed some of his poetry.

As someone else said, although Larkin’s time was only forty or fifty years ago it was a very different world. It was wonderful to hear someone talk about him who knew him as a friend, has written a highly regarded biography of him and is a renowned poet in his own right.

My advice: if you have the opportunity to hear Motion lecture and answer questions about the poet who was one of the best writing in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century, take it.

H

Did he talk about Tom Courtenay in Pretending to Be Me? I’ve neither seen nor heard it, but the combination of Larkin and Courtenay is too rich not to hope for the chance.

It was a world in which the circulation of literary journals exceeded the number monthly submissions. Today, anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection has the power to commit poetry.

ps

No, Motion didn’t talk about the Courtenay play. As you say, it would have been interesting to see. He did mention a play on BBC TV about five years ago starring Hugh Bonneville as Larkin (but I didn’t see that either).

Mostly Motion talked about his impressions of Larkin when he was more or less mentored by him at Hull University, and subsequently, and his experiences in writing his biography. ("For some of those I spoke to, it was therapy. I had to tell one of the women ‘You weren’t the only one.’)

He talked about the destruction of Larkin’s diaries (which Larkin ordered): according to Motion “… undoubtedly the worst example of posthumous destruction in the entire history of English literature, worse than the destruction of Byron’s diaries, which were probably mostly social.” In addition, he spoke of his feelings when he found the treasure-trove of Larkin’s letters, in a box-room under the stairs at Larkin’s house (“all neatly labelled - of course Larkin was a librarian”).

He described meeting Larkin for the first time when Motion was 23 or 24: “I met him in the bar of the Senior Common Room at lunchtime. He asked me, slightly awkwardly, ‘What does your father do?’ When I told him he was a brewer, like his father before him, and his father before him, he loosened up considerably. Several beers later…”

That, as Motion, pointed out, is one of the ways in which the world then was different from the world today. You could drink quite heavily at lunchtime and still expect to hold down a reasonably responsible job.

H

I too have heard Motion talk about Larkin, and he certainly was interesting. The thing that troubles me about him (Motion) - and it really comes across in the biog, which is hugely informative but not in the end very insightful where the poetry is concerned - is that he’s so keen to make it clear that he is sensitive to all that is “wrong” with Larkin. Richard Bradford’s shorter account of Larkin seems to me to be an altogether more perceptive account, less hedged and more truly sympathetic.

I can see clearly why that could be said. For example, for all the emphasis that Motion places on the destroyed diaries, he himself states that the evidence is that they were mainly about Larkin’s sexual fantasies, including what might be regarded as some pretty strange ones. Motion seems to have taken a fashionably “warts and all” journalistic approach to the biography. But not having read Bradford’s account, I can’t compare it.

H