Larkin, Bechet and “the natural noise of good”

June 14, 2010 at 10:17 pm (BBC, jazz, Jim D, literature, music, perversity, Racism)

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.


  1. Tom said,

    Who cares what his views were? Larkin was a great artist and that’s all that matters – he is honoured for his art, not his views. Robeson was an unrepentant stalinist but is rightly remembered as a great vocalist. This is no different.

  2. jazzlives said,

    I admired Larkin as a poet before I knew him as a boldly satiric jazz “critic,” somewhat dazed by the “modern” “jazz” records he was asked to review . . . when his idea of the music’s aesthetic pinnacle was the 1932 Rhythmakers recordings — not a bad position to take! And I delight in his writing somewhere that he felt the need to be a little more tactful in his denunciations: that he wrote “harmonically adventurous” when he thought “annoying noise.” As for the attacks on Larkin, his private letters were meant to be such, no matter how much he was subversively, happily writing with half an eye on posterity. I ask anyone who is offended by Larkin (and part of Larkin’s delight in such things is the total offense he might well be causing) to consider whether their private uncensored conversation or private correspondence might show them as politically pure when they are dead. Few of us could meet that test, and I suspect that the “saints” among us who could might be so correct as to be lifeless.

    And, just as an aside, many famous White jazz musicians (I thik of Joe Venuti among them) were disdainful of Blacks although reasonably content to play alongside them when required to.

    Cheers, Michael Steinman (

  3. David K said,

    As a Hullite it is interesting how the cities attitude toward Larkin has changed.

    Larkin in general was not that popular in Hull whilst I was growing up. My Dad who was at Hull university in the 70s tells stories about Larkin’s arsyness. Everyone admitted the brilliance of his poetry but it would seem they would rather have had cosy northern doggerill from the likes of Ian McMillan.

    In general as well he was an outsider who played up the grimness and sterotypes of a place “Where only salesmen and relations come”. There was a famous BBC documentary presented by John Betjeman where Larkin shows him round his favorite haunts in Hull. Which where the overgrown Western Cemetery, the Holderness Drain and other grim locales.

    At the same time in the 1960s in Hull there is a hell of a lot going on that Larkin avoids talking about in favour of writing about Hull as it was when he first went there in the 1950s. By the late 1960s Hull FC and Hull KR were both in their heyday and skippered by black Rugby League legend Clive Sullivan (possibly the greatest League player of all time). In 1966 there was the seamens strike, in 1968 the preventable triple trawler tragedy and the wives campaign against the trawler owners. There was also a burgeoning folk scene that produced the Watersons and many other folk bands. All of this is pretty much forgotten and Larkin’s version lingers.

    Now Larkin is celebrated as one of Hull’s greatest figures. With the council trying to cash in. Now Larkin is an industry.

    • resistor said,

      Was Larkin

      a/ a misogynist? Yes!

      b/ a racist? Yes!

      c/ a Nazi sympathiser? Who knows?

      …but worse than that he was

      d/ a Jazz fan

      not nice

  4. maxdunbar said,

    Cultural Commissar again.

    BTW there is a campaign in Hull for a statue of Larkin

  5. Laban said,

    Poets are prophets. And what happened to the money we were going to leave the children ? Homage To A Government, 1969.

    Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
    For lack of money, and it is all right.
    Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
    Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
    We want the money for ourselves at home
    Instead of working. And this is all right.

    It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
    But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
    The places are a long way off, not here,
    Which is all right, and from what we hear
    The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
    Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

    Next year we shall be living in a country
    That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
    The statues will be standing in the same
    Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
    Our children will not know it’s a different country.
    All we can hope to leave them now is money.

  6. Rosie said,

    On the misogyny & sexism issue, I’d give Larkin a pass. He was someone who like to keep his options open when it came to girlfriends, that’s all, which isn‘t uncommon. I saw a good telly drama called Larkin’s Women and it made me think that the women in Larkin’s life didn’t really have words for what Larkin was like, but which women these days recognise and discuss as “afraid of commitment”.

    Being a librarian, he worked mostly with female colleagues and said to his pal K Amis that he treated them like men (ie as colleagues, not as a breed apart) and got on very well with them. He was also a champion of Barbara Pym and went to great efforts to get her novels recognised as he thought they were underrated. They struck up a warm friendship. Many of the women in his poems are treated with great tenderness – not just the love objects but the women sitting in trains, or being pushed to the margins of their own lives, or growing old, or the miner‘s wife in The Explosion. Also, in his Required Writing, there’s an essay about Thomas Hardy’s second wife, which is very sympathetic towards her.

    I love his poems so don’t really care how he treated his womenfolk, or how regarded women in general. But a lot of bright women loved and liked him, and he was willing to recognise talent in women eg Sylvia Plath, though her poems are very unlike his.

  7. Arthur Seaton said,

    Philip Larkin is my favourite poet, I adore his better work, which is outstanding. But I would never try to argue he wasn’t a very, very right-wing racist. Saying slavery is bad and liking jazz is not enough I fear, to stave off this charge. Read through his selected letters and there’s page after page of bigoted bile.

    ‘Prison for strikers, bring back the cat
    kick out the niggers, how about that?

    Trade with the Empire, ban the obscene
    hang all the commies, God Save the Queen’

    Even more fetid

    ‘I want to see them starving, the so called-working class
    Their wages weekly halving, their women stewing grass

    When I ride out each morning, in one of my new suits
    I want to see them fawning, to clean my car and boots’

    There’s lots of people who’ll say he was ‘only having a laugh’ I’m sure. Bollocks. The repetitive right-wing whinges him and K Amis traded over the years were not an ‘act’, they were what they supported, Thatcher-loving and all.

    A great poet, an unpleasant man: there’ no point in a left-wing admirer of his work attempting to pretend otherwise.

  8. Poumite « Poumista said,

    […] Jim Denham on Larkin and Bechet. […]

  9. Jim Denham said,

    Rachel Cooke in today’s Observer, on Larkin and women. Worth a read:

  10. More Larkin « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm (Rosie B, literature) Further to Jim’s post here’s a good piece on Larkin by Rachel Cooke:-. After the publication of Thwaite’s […]

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