Since the publication of Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters back in 1992 we have seen a determined effort to play down his political views so that he can be restored to his place as a much-loved national poet. The Larkin exhibition at Hull University, part of the City of Culture celebrations, is an example of this.
But should a British university, indeed any university, really be celebrating a man who could write in 1984 that he had stopped going to test matches because there were “too many fucking niggers about”? The following year he did actually go to a match at Lords and inevitably complained about “those black scum kicking up a din on the boundary” and wishing that a “squad of South African police” could have “sorted them out”.
This is not to say that Larkin should not be studied. Indeed, he certainly should be — arguably all the more given his private views. But celebrated? That is another matter.
Larkin had always been on the right politically. His father had been strongly pro-Nazi in the 1930s, but Larkin himself seems to have been a middle of the road Conservative right up until the 1960s. What pushed him into the embrace of the most vicious racism, class hatred and bigotry was the multiple challenges to his nice, ordered universe that began to erupt in that decade.
The election of a Labour government in 1964 was bad enough, but it was followed by rising levels of industrial conflict, student revolt and the Black Power movement. He complained bitterly that “the children of the striking classes” were being allowed into the universities and as for their parents, well they were “lower class bastards”.
The working class “could no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm”. Indeed, his fear and hatred of an insurgent labour movement provoked him into verse. In 1970, there was:
Prison for strikers
Bring back the cat.
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?
And in 1976 there was:
I want to see them starving,
The so-called working class.
Their wages weekly halving,
Their women stewing grass.
When I drive out each morning
In one of my new suits
I want to find them fawning
To clean my car and boots.
Initially, he placed his hopes in Enoch Powell, but then he fell head over heels in love with Margaret Thatcher. She provided him with many hours of happy masturbatory pleasure. For Larkin, she was “a superb creature…right and beautiful”. He positively welcomed the mass unemployment of the early 1980s; indeed he hoped that the Tories would “abolish unemployment benefit”.
He longed for a return of the days when cowed poverty-stricken workers would follow you home on foot behind your car “to earn a few pence for unloading your luggage. I’d love to see Arthur Scargill
Thatcher’s attack on the miners in 1984 saw his devotion to the prime minister positively overflowing. If only she had introduced compulsory repatriation of migrants as well his joy would have been complete. As it was, there was still the problem of the “rampaging hordes of blacks” who “steal anything they can lay their hands on”.
As for the Black Power movement in the United States, it even spoiled his enjoyment of jazz. Musicians like Duke Ellington had known their place, contentedly playing for white audiences in clubs where they could not even buy a drink or a sandwich because they were black.
But now, as he put in the Daily Telegraph, “the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man”. Charles Mingus was “the musical equivalent of Mr Stokely Carmichael”, the Black Power leader. Modern jazz was “two fingers extended from a bunched fist” as far as Larkin was concerned.
The old world where the working class, black people and women knew their place was collapsing around him and his response was an embrace of Powellism and Thatcherism couched, in private, in the most vicious language. The celebration of such a man shows how far the right have succeeded in pushing us back.