The City of Hull has just begun ‘Larkin 25’, a 25-week-long event, marking the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death on 2nd December 1985. BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ hosted by Mark Lawson, plugged the event, but spent at least half its time promoting the charges that Larkin was:
a/ a misogynist;
b/ a racist;
c/ a Nazi sympathiser.
No-one on the programme challenged these claims and even the suggestion (from one of the organisers of the Hull event) that we should separate the man from his work, came over as tacit acceptance that the allegations are true.
Alan Plater, a staunch defender of Larkin’s memory, did not feature in ‘Front Row’, but could have provided some balance. Plater wrote (in the Graun in 2002) about an incident in the 1970’s:
“I was on a selection panel with Larkin and a man from the Arts Council, given the task of selecting a poet-in-residence for a college in Hull. One of the applicants was black. After the interviews the man from the Arts Council said: ‘What did we think of our coloured cousin?’ To which Larkin and I replied, in synch: ‘We give him the job.’ Which we did, to the splendid Archie Markham.”
In his role as self-appointed counsel for the defence, Plater has written elsewhere (the forward to Larkin’s Jazz, Continuum, 2001):
“This collection goes a long way towards reclaiming Philip from the demonologists (Chandler used to call them ‘primping second-guessers’) who fell on the Selected Letters and the (Andrew Motion) biography with evangelical zeal and pronounced him unfit for human consumption on the basis of racism, sexism and various other disorders lumped together under any other business on that day’s agenda.
“Well, here is our designated demon on the racist issue, writing in 1969:
“‘It is an irony almost too enormous to be noticed that the thorough penetration of Anglo-Saxon civilisation by Afro-American culture by means of popular music is a direct, though long-term, result of the abominable slave trade.’
“And on the sexist issue, at the end of a review of books about Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in 1973, he writes:
“‘Different in their styles, similar in their quality, these two women gave the world more than it could ever have repaid, even if it had tried.’
“Here are two huge, compassionate truths wrapped up in a sentence apiece, each informed by decency and anger, and enough to start a revolution any day of the week.”
For what it’s worth, I personally believe that the charge of sexism/misogyny carries some weight (Plater’s dismissal of it – “How can anyone be a womaniser and a misogynist?” – is pretty weak); the charge of racism comes with enough (albeit conflicting) evidence to be at least worthy of consideration; the charge of Nazi sympathies is simply an outrageous slur disgracefully repeated by Mark Lawson, whose only evidence seems to be that Larkin kept a mechanical model of Hitler once owned by his father (who was a Nazi sympathiser).
If I don’t go all the way with Plater, I am certainly with him in giving Larkin’s love of jazz a lot of weight in the case for the defence. As Plater notes, “It is no coincidence that repressive regimes the world over, taking their cue from Hitler, have always hated jazz, the music that doesn’t play by the rules, or as Philip describes it: ‘that incredible argot that in the first half of the 20th century spoke to all nations and all intelligences equally’.”
And Larkin’s love of one jazz musician in particular is significant: the black New Orleans clarinetist and soprano sax master Sidney Bechet, for whom Larkin’s enthusiasm knew no bounds:
“There are not many perfect things in jazz, but Bechet playing the blues could be one of them“, he wrote in the Guardian in 1960.
As a young jazz record collector in Oxford in 1941, he wrote to a friend about a Bechet record: “I rushed out on Monday and bought ‘Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning’. Fucking, cunting, bloody good! Bechet is a great artist. As soon as he starts playing you automatically stop thinking about anything else and listen. Power and glory!”
And, of course, in his 1964 collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, Larkin included this:
For Sidney Bechet
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares–
Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced
Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,
And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
Here’s the record Larkin enthused over so colourfully in 1941:
…and here’s Larkin’s favourite jazz record of all (the band, led by Alan Elsdon, at his Westminster Abbey memorial service recreated it): Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’:
I don’t believe that anyone who loved that piece of music (and the man who created it) so much, and called it “the natural noise of good”, can have been all bad.