Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual and often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

Paris … Another 48 Hours

Paris … Another 48 Hours


23 March, Saturday

Tired on the road to Cork even though JP was driving. The flight was a bit short for sleeping. Just and hour and a quarter. We checked into our rooms at the Verlain and went straight to St. Germain. The Bar du Marché was too busy but it was only when we sat down at Café Buci that I remembered I’d been there before. Sick in late December 2013. The tough boeuf and the sweet waitress. This time we had a couple of bottles of beer, a couple of large kirs (my vote) and a cold platter that was much more than just meat and cheese (that was JP’s vote).



I felt immediately relaxed and refreshed, though by the time we got to the Piano Vache, via the Sorbonne and the Place du Panthéon, where the setting sun lit up the stone, I was feeling the mixture of a couple of strong drinks with the underlying fatigue. It had been a busy week.







Anyway, the beer fridge in the Piano Vache was suspiciously poorly stocked and the chap behind the counter was really only interested in rolling dice on the counter. We still managed with what was available and P. caught up with us before dark. Different flight.


Dinner (for me) was a pizza at an Italian restaurant JP knew, around the corner. There I quietly realized how much Italian I’d forgotten. The white tablecloth reminded me of a sinking feeling of anxiety typical at weddings but I held it together.

When we left that place, JP called an Uber and a large, pretty girl with ripped jeans and lovely North African eyes took us over to the Cork & Cavan by the Canal St. Martin. 



There, as if by magic, I managed to locate a copy of The Cynic’s Handbook on the bookshelves. Running my fingers along the nearest volumes, I found it by touch alone. Told JP to keep it, especially as it had the pub stamp and all. Next time I’ll bring a few more copies over. We left before closing time, after all three of us ran out of steam.

24 March, Sunday

Up before noon in a better state than I’d feared at five in the morning. We went to Montparnasse and had lunch at Le Select. You can never go wrong there with the cheese burger and the crispy chips (fries). Lunch needed to be simple and tasty.


Then we marched to the station to get the 14.09 to Chartres. The Paris suburbs were misty grey. The cathedral is a class apart and I’ve seen a few.


On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man, entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.





After a couple of drinks in Le Serpente, P. and I went in. JP was in it twice before. He wandered off. When we found him again, he and I had fortifying Irish coffees in a café where a glass exploded behind the counter. On the train back I had a nap and then a job to explain all the Brexit threats to a fellow passenger, a woman sitting on a facing seat. Both she and P. had been frustrated by the locked toilets on the train. C’est difficile à expliquer, même en anglais. But she got the picture.

JP suggested we go to the Galway by the St. Michel metro, within sight of Notre Dame. He knew it from his nephew, who’d eventually got barred.  The easygoing girls behind the counter were from Toronto and Sheffield. One or two oddballs drank there, including a black American who spoke like an actor and kept calling the Canadian girl “Honey biscuit” to JP’s disdain. He wore a cloth cap, a black leather jacket and fingerless black gloves. P. stayed until midnight or so and JP and I left at closing time (2 AM).





On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was thus about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man (his driver), entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

The Cynical Saint

The Cynical Saint

Painting : Diogenes (1873) by Jules Bastien-Lepage

When Alexander the Great went to Corinth at the age of twenty to lead the Greek army due to fight the Persians, he sought out an old philosopher called Diogenes. That these two might in some sense have been kindred spirits is suggested by a story about the young Alexander. At a banquet he annoyed his father, Philip of Macedon, who was planning an invasion of Asia Minor at the time. Having been at the wine all evening, the king fell over when making an angry lunge. It prompted this observation from his son. See him who would pass from Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one table to another.

When Alexander came to see Diogenes he was trailed by many hangers-on and other prominent citizens. He found the old man sunbathing so he introduced himself and asked if he could do him any favour. The response was a sole request. Don’t stand between me and the sun. The crowd either sniggered or gasped at this impudence but this reply only provoked a single comment from the young king. Were I not Alexander I would be Diogenes. To this the old man replied, Were I not Diogenes I would still wish to be Diogenes.

He was renowned for his shamelessness. Happiness, he taught, means satisfying the simplest wants in the simplest manner and the desire for anything beyond the minimal bodily satisfactions should be condemned as unnatural, as should any convention standing in the way of such minimalism. The achievement of this demands self-discipline but leads, he claimed, to self-sufficiency and freedom.

Living outside society and living alone, Diogenes wore coarse clothing, slept on the ground or in public buildings, ate very plain food he obtained through begging and avoided meat. In winter, he was said to have walked barefoot in the snow. In summer, he rolled in the hot sand. He apparently carried on like this to harden himself against discomfort. Later he lived in a tub. From there he conducted his moral lectures, combining quick wit with necessary if often unwitting audience participation.

Diogenes was born around 412 BC at Sinope, a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey. Like many famous ascetics who managed to party before embarking on their spiritual quest, he spent his youth in a life of dissolution and extravagance. His father was a magistrate who was eventually exiled, together with his son, for the crime of debasing the currency by increasing the base metals in the coinage.

Diogenes then went to Athens, accompanied by a slave called Manes. There he studied under Antisthenes. The place name of the latter’s school translates as ‘white dog’. It was apparently named after an incident in which such a dog carried away part of a victim being offered as a sacrifice to Hercules. The word “cynic” derives from a Greek word for dog-like and this is perhaps the earliest association of the figure of the dog with the Cynic sect.

It was Antisthenes’ insistence on a life of simplicity and austerity that had a profound influence on Diogenes. When Manes ran away, he refused to chase after him. His view was that if Manes could live without Diogenes it would be absurd if Diogenes could not live without Manes. In keeping with his exile, he made it his mission to ‘deface the currency’ by his disregard of conventions, customs, standards and beliefs that he saw as false and unnatural. He conveyed his principles by striking sayings and flamboyant actions.

When asked about the right age for marriage, Diogenes replied, For a young man, not yet; for an old man, not at all! By way of further shock treatment, he masturbated in public to show how simply sexual desires could be satisfied but added that the real message was to mourn the fact that hunger could not as easily be satisfied by rubbing his stomach.

Such actions, combined with his genuine – if acquired – contempt for luxury, made a great impression on the Athenians. Diogenes was viewed with benign tolerance and sometimes more. The hetaira Laïs was a Sicilian-born Greek who charged the orator Demosthenes 10,000 drachmas for a single night but gave herself to Diogenes for nothing.

Each hetaira was a member of the highest of three classes of prostitutes. They lived on the fringe of society but carried on publicly with the most notable men, which is where they got their education. It was the only way for a Greek to become a college girl. These independent courtesans could enjoy an enviable position of wealth and were protected and taxed by the state. Though they were generally foreigners or ex-slaves, their freedom was greater than that of the married women, who were forced to live in seclusion. Diogenes in contrast advocated sexual freedom for both sexes and maintained that children should be the common concern of all.

His contemporary Plato described him as Socrates gone mad. As well as banning poets, Plato’s Republic at least acknowledged that sex was perhaps more effective than mathematics in persuading or driving the common man to do anything. Plato otherwise believed in an unseen, eternal world of abstract Forms or Ideas of which our world was only a pale and dim reflection. When Plato gave a lecture in which he defined man in abstract as a two-legged, featherless animal, Diogenes plucked a chicken or a duck and threw it into the proceedings, announcing ‘Behold Plato’s man!’

When Plato invited him to dinner he predictably trampled all over the cushions with muddy feet, saying he was trampling on the pride of the host. This prompted an understandable retort. Yes, with the pride of Diogenes.

e this as it may, another day Plato saw Diogenes washing lettuces, so he came up to him for a quiet word. Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces. Diogenes’ answer was calm. If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius. Whereas Plato viewed brown-nosing as freeing him from poverty, Diogenes saw his poverty as freeing him from having to suck up to a ruler. He saw the freedom to speak the truth as the most beautiful thing in a world of fools with completely distorted values where, for example, statues cost thousands of drachmas while a small quantity of flour went for a couple of copper coins.

When someone asked him why he often laughed by himself he said it was for that very reason – he was on his own. Though he lived as a beggar he didn’t insist that everybody should live the same way. He merely intended to show to any one willing to listen that happiness and independence were possible even under reduced circumstances.

When asked why pupils left him to go to other teachers but rarely left others to come to him he said it was because one can make a eunuch from a man but cannot make a man from a eunuch. Another day he asked a bad-tempered man for alms and the man said, ‘Persuade me’ so Diogenes’ next move was simple. If I could persuade you of anything I’d tell you to hang yourself. When asked why people gave money to beggars but not to philosophers he explained it was because they think they might well end up as beggars but never end up as philosophers.

The chief aim of his teaching was practical good and he did not conceal his contempt for ivory-tower abstractions, whether in literature, fine art or philosophy. A student, eager to display his powers of argument, approached him with a request. If it pleases you, sir, let me prove to you that there is no such thing as motion. Diogenes simply got up and left.

How did he end up in Corinth? On a sea voyage to the rocky island of Aegina he was seized by pirates and carried off to Crete to be sold as a slave. Asked his trade, he said ‘Master of men’ before a rich Corinthian called Xeniades bought him and brought him home. There he gave him back his freedom and asked him to become tutor to his children. Diogenes taught them to improve their memories by learning poetry. He also got them to cut their hair short and avoid wearing ornaments or shoes.

Tradition has it that he and Alexander died on the same day in 323 BC. Alexander was just thirty-two, Diogenes nearly ninety. Our word “cosmopolitan” can be traced to Diogenes’ description of himself as a citizen of the world. To his memory the Corinthians raised a marble pillar on which they stuck an effigy of a dog.

The Kafka of Sociology

The Kafka of Sociology

In November 1952 Erving Goffman took a phrase from the world of confidence trickery for the title of his essay “On Cooling The Mark Out”, which was subtitled “Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure” and published in the journal Psychiatry. A mark in the jargon is the victim of a scam. For the mark, such cooling is a process of adjustment to a situation arising from his having defined himself in a way that the social facts (e.g. his loss) contradict.

In stark cases, as in those of physical death, the role of spiritual cooler is given to doctors or priests. A priest must not so much save a soul as create one that is consistent with what is about to become of it. A second typical solution to the problem of reconciling a mark to his loss consists of offering him another status that provides something else for him to become. Usually the alternative presented to the mark is a compromise of some kind. As examples, Goffman offers the lover who may be asked to become a friend and the student of medicine who may be asked to switch to dentistry.

A third standard method of cooling the mark out is to perform a controlled explosion. If this eruption of emotions does not find a target, then it at least serves as a release and catharsis. When a blow-up of this kind occurs, friends of the mark or psychotherapists are often called in. Friends are willing to take responsibility because their relationship is not limited to the role the mark has failed in. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, are willing to take responsibility because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in some other relationship.

In an increasing number of cases, the mark is given professional help of some kind. The psychotherapist is, in this sense, society’s cooler. His or her job is to send the patient back in a condition in which he or she can no longer cause trouble to others and can no longer make a fuss.

As a fourth cooling procedure, the operator and the mark may form an understanding according to which the mark agrees to act as if he were leaving of his own accord and the operator agrees to preserve this illusion. Bribery is a form of exchange. In such cases, the mark guarantees to leave quickly and quietly and in exchange is allowed to go under what the writer calls a cloud of his own choosing.

Goffman also writes that persons who have died in social ways come gradually to be brought together into a common graveyard that is separated ecologically from what he terms the living community. For the “dead”, this is at once a punishment and a defence. Jails and mental institutions are the most familiar examples but other important ones exist.

In America, he observed the interesting tendency to set aside certain regions and towns as retirement asylums for those who have died as workers and as parents but who are still alive, financially. In Europe we can view the south coast of Spain as a parallel zone.

Hobo jungles provided another case in point for Goffman but, just as a residential area may become a graveyard, so also certain institutions and occupational roles could take on a similar function, he maintained. The religious ministry in Britain, for example, had sometimes served as a limbo for the occupational stillborn of better families, as had the British universities. Nonetheless Goffman accepted that there were few positions in life that did not group together some people who were there as failures and others as successes.

In this sense, the dead are sorted but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living.