That’s Roy Keane playing the man and not the ball, and a painful sight it was too. Philip Larkin critics almost always play the man and not the ball, according to John Osborne in his new Larkin, Ideology and Critical Violence. Just about every speaker in every poem, he argues, gets cut down to size as the fat, bald, heterosexual, white bloke that was Philip Larkin, though the word ‘speaker’ here is also wrong, denoting as it does the readings of cosy Larkinites unable to process their man as text rather than voice. ‘Cosy’ extends to pro- and anti-Larkinites, of course. The antis, who quaff deep of the wine of righteous indignation, attack a man of their own paranoid and self-serving creation. Take Tom Paulin: faced with ‘Counting’ (‘Thinking in terms of one /Is easily done – /One room, one bed, one chair, /One person there…’), Paulin declares: ‘One is ace and masculine, two is trouble and female.’ Osborne pounces: ‘As a glance at his own poems will verify, words are not Paulin’s strong suit; but there is a serious cognitive problem here… In order to accuse the poem of sexism, Paulin has first had to sex it; the piece itself, like the majority of Larkin’s poems, is resolutely non-gender-specific, as applicable to women as to men.’
Osborne performs similar acts of sterilisation on all the familiar topoi of Larkin flapdoodles. Larkin the John Bull Englishman? He eviscerates Englishness from the inside out, in exemplary poems of non-attachment and rootlessness. Larkin the male chauvinist? He is the most feminist of poets. Larkin the Tory? Even a piece of sour late harrumphing like ‘Going, Going’ is a subtle dig at Tory brainlessness (the Tory working party that commissioned the poem ended up censoring it). That jaunty little ditty from a letter to Robert Conquest, ‘I want to see them starving, /The so-called working class’, is valiantly rehabilitated (‘look what happens if we substitute a different heading: “The Ballad of the Fascist Bastard”, perhaps, or “Colonel Blimp’s Epitaph”’), so that it becomes a satire on being rude about the working class.
It’s all a spirited and zesty performance. If Osborne is correct, Larkin’s admirers have got him completely wrong and not only does he have nothing to do with the jaded old Movement crowd, he is in fact a secret brother in arms of W.S. Graham, Roy Fisher, Christopher Middleton, Denise Riley, John Riley, J.H. Prynne even… just some of the writers, in other words, who really do turn their backs on the cosy commonplaces of recent British poetry (voice, identity, nation), and lead to slightly different contemporary poets from the ones Osborne mentions (Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Jenkins…). So why does none of these people feature in Osborne’s book, and why, if only for the purposes of receiving a good kicking, does the Movement identification win out yet again? That’s what I’d like to work out. How long do we have to spend on Tom Paulin et al’s inability to construe a simple line by Larkin before we get on to the comparative readings of The Whitsun Weddings and Kitchen Poems or The Cut Pages? I’m not sure if that isn’t one of those questions that brings the priest and the doctor running in their long coats, but I presume the answer is ‘a very long time’. It’s never going to happen, is it, and it’s not John Osborne’s fault. You know what I blame this on the breakdown of?, as Lenny asks in Moe’s tavern. Society, that’s what. Maybe radical Larkin (since that’s what’s at issue here, believe in it or not as you will) is like Daniil Kharms’s bald redheaded man I mentioned a few posts back: ‘We’d better not talk about him anymore.’