Wednesday 31 July 2019

'Well, the tape draws to an end...'

When I started reading that hefty volume Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, I thought I'd just skim it for a while then put it aside to dip into later – but it turned out to be strangely compelling reading, and increasingly so the more I read. So I ended up reading most of the letters, skipping only the contractual wrangles and jazz obsessives' in-talk – and I enjoyed the experience so much that I was sorry when, last night, I reached the final page.
  Larkin's heroic grumbling continues to the last, along with his comically dystopian take on the way the country is going, and of course the jokes, the crudities and the gloriously scathing judgment of certain other writers, some of whom he adored in his youth (notably Dylan Thomas). That garden and that lawn continue to be a regular source of misery and woe, but Larkin treats his more real miseries and woes – his fast failing health and its attendant horrors, along with Monica's* medical problems – with commendable stoicism. The last letter in the volume is to his old friend Kingsley Amis, and, in its understated way, it makes sad reading, not least because Larkin has had to dictate it onto tape for his secretary to type. The closing paragraph reads:
'Well, the tape draws to an end; think of me packing up my pyjamas and shaving things for today's ordeal [more hospital tests], and hope all goes well. I really feel this year has been more than I deserve; I suppose it's all come at once, instead of being spread out as with most people.
You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction,
                                                              Yours ever,
The 'usual valediction' in letters to Amis was the word 'bum', appended to some completely irrelevant sentence, e.g.
'Mrs Thatcher must reconsider her

Eleven days after writing his last letter to Amis, Larkin was dead.

* Monica Jones, who was by this stage living with him, and who outlived him by many years. She seems never to have got over Larkin's death.

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