Saturday, 18 January 2014

Samuel Beckett: Atom Brain

Being somewhat prostrated by what is laughingly called a 'cold', I've been lying on the sofa listening to things on the BBC iPlayer - one of which was Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica (read in five parts by Hugh Bonneville). Interesting stuff - though one often felt for poor Monica - with insights into the genesis of some of the poems (invariably dismissed by Larkin as sorry stuff at the time of their birth). And of course many of his grievances, peeves and pet hates get an airing. I hadn't realised quite how extreme was his dislike of Samuel Beckett until I heard this passage, an account of a visit by Beckett to Belfast, where Larkin was working in the University Library:

'Samuel Beckett turned up for a day recently, and I thanked God I was not to live with him further. Faint embers of my dislike glowed in me, ready to flap into flame. He had had an absurd American haircut and looked like the top boy of his grade whom his mates call Atom Brain.'

Well, this is very funny (it made me laugh anyway), but also pretty bizarre. I'm not surprised that Larkin, like many right-thinking common-sensical red-blooded Englishmen might be suspicious of Beckett as being altogether too much the wilfully obscure French Intellectual - 'one of Jean-Paul Sartre's lot,' in Tony Hancock's phrase - but Larkin seems to have been one of very few to have disliked Beckett in person as well as in theory. The observations on the haircut are especially bizarre, as this was no American crew cut but a then standard French style. Beckett continued to wear his hair 'en brosse' for the rest of his life - and at a recent Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen, a celebration of all things Beckettian, a local barber was offering to give all comers 'a Beckett' for £6. I don't think there were many takers.


  1. Gotta say, Nige, I love Samuel Beckett's en brosse style. But then, I am a French teacher!

  2. Absolutely - it was perfect for him. Never been tempted to have 'a Beckett' myself though...

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