Wednesday 3 July 2019

(sounds like a character in Henry James)

For some while now the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin – all 700-plus pages of it – has been my intermittent bedtime reading. I'm now past the 500-page mark and still, somehow, enjoying the exercise. Some of the letters are eminently skippable – especially the business ones, in which Larkin shows a terrier-like tenacity in extracting the best possible terms from publishers (and why not?) – but most are very readable, revealing and often enjoyable. Larkin is too good a writer to compose a truly dull sentence, and, despite every sign of reluctance and tardiness, he's a natural letter writer, fitting his style to his correspondent, showing tenderness and sensitivity where it's required and foul-mouthed blokiness where that is what's called for. What's best – and unlike so many other writers' letters – is that these are often very funny.
 Larkin's comedy (often at its best in asides) sits alongside, and is closely related to, his determination to present his life – the life of a very successful poet and university librarian – as a miserable succession of barely endurable woes. A letter of February 1974 to Judy Egerton (recipient of some of the most tender and considerate letters) demonstrates both the comedy and the love of grumbling. He is moving house  – did ever a man have to endure such a thing? – from Pearson Park to Newland Park (both in Hull, of course):

'Well, at any rate it isn't the bungalow on the bypass. But I can't say it's the kind of dwelling that is eloquent of the nobility of the human spirit. It has a huge garden – not a lovely wilderness (though it soon will be) – a long strip between wire fences – oh god oh god – I am 'taking over' the vendor's Qualcast (sounds like a character in Henry James). I don't know when I shall get in ... I hope before the bloody garden starts growing. So Larkin's Pearson Park Period ends, & his Newland Park Period begins...'

He's right – Qualcast, or even Vendors Qualcast, does sound like a character in Henry James.
 That Qualcast is to become literature's most famous lawnmower, the one that inspired one of Larkin's finest late poems, The Mower. (His other great mowing poem, Cut Grass, was written in Larkin's pre-Qualcast Period.)

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

 And now the Qualcast, preserved for posterity, is in the exhaustive Larkin archives at Hull, along with everything from his house – from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, knickers, ties, knitted rabbits, his father's statuette of Hitler... A poet's life.

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