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“my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”: larkin on work, bunnycide

with 6 comments

Ah, two weekdays mostly at home and suddenly the infarctional insanity of work is thrown into stark relief. This is so civilized, gawd. Wake up, walk my daughter to school (I’m usually on the bus an hour before she goes), sit at my kitchen table with newspapers and novels and coffee.

Anyway, here’s a nifty thing from the TLS about the earliest interviews with and articles about Philip Larkin to appear in the press….

I was particularly struck by Larkin’s loathing of work, including, I suspected, his job as a librarian, although he carefully did not specify this. We discussed his career and much of what he told me I included in my profile. He said that on going down from Oxford he could have taught or gone into the Civil Service. “I did not want to teach because I stammered and the Civil Service turned me down. I even considered journalism but I could not write to order.” I omitted, for obvious reasons, what he told me about his first job at Wellington in Shropshire. “I saw and applied for a job as librarian at Wellington”, he said.

“The last man had scrubbed the floor and stoked the boiler but I refused to do this. I was accepted nonetheless. This was a stupid choice that has determined the course of my life ever since but I didn’t have the courage to chuck it up. My two-and-three-quarter years at Wellington were the most unhappy of my life – and the most creative.”

(I did not know then that it was while he was at Wellington that he met and broke up with Ruth Bowman, the only woman to whom he was ever formally engaged.)

“I hate work. Libraries are a quite pleasant way of earning a living. Dismal prospects though! Jobs connected with books like publishing are not good for creative writing. That’s why libraries, all technical and administration, are so good.”

He added wistfully: “It’s too late to change now”, and, only half in jest:

“I’d like to have been a solid, uncomplicated, second-rate novelist producing a novel a year. And not ‘Crouch in the fo’c’sle, stubbly with goodness’. My only ambition now is to write more, to write better and to live without working, which is immensely distasteful to me. I’d like to earn enough to retire on from football pools, which I do every autumn.”

I asked him if that really was his only ambition. His answer was that, as he had spent most of his life in bedsitting rooms and was still in one (“the only life I have known”), he would also like to achieve his two private symbols of luxury, “my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”. Greatly daring, I asked him if he contemplated marriage (I knew nothing then of his tangled love life or of his difficulties with girls). He said he certainly intended to. “I’m not a confirmed bachelor but I rather enjoy the rattlesnake image.”

Ah, so you see? I’m starting to think, more and more each day, that these sort of stories are worth thinking about. Duh. OK – I’ll put it this way. Do you know when you teach lit (if you teach lit), we always end up starting out with some sort of capsule biographical description before heading on to the Heavy Work of close reading or whatever? Well, I’ve rejiggered my capsules to focus on this sort of story and not the other one. The story of “creativity” is the story of finding space, time, and market. It’s sort of a more materialist, matter-of-fact, less mystical-abyssal, Adornoism, btw btw btw, before anyone hits out at me for being, well, something about all of this.

Harumpf. Bonus poem time:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Nice, geez. Have never read that one before. And am facinated by mixy bunnies, so there you have it. But it’s also a decent enough poem about work, if you squint at it, no?

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

6 Responses

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  1. Here’s a relevant tidbit from Hershel Parker’s Melville biography, apropos the composition of Clarel and Moby-Dick: “He was fatigable, and often desperately fatigued, but he persisted; ‘indefatigable’ is offered as perfunctory praise only by superficial critics who have no idea what real work is.”

    Ben Friedlander

    April 1, 2009 at 10:46 am

  2. Ah, Ben, that’s perfect…. Am gonna print it up and stick it on my office door. Or would that be misconstrued?


    April 2, 2009 at 6:54 am

  3. “why should I let the toad _work_ squat on my life?”

    Ah, Larkin, that curmudgeonly old codger.

    I’ve got a lot of interesting work/parasitism/funding things about Duchamp and the other surrealists if you’re interested, as I’ve (for obvious reasons) been obsessing about art and support for a while now.


    April 3, 2009 at 12:09 am

  4. Mmm, yes send along Sisyphus!


    April 3, 2009 at 9:24 am

  5. Work is horrible and should be avoided for as long as possible.

    Sister Wolf

    April 5, 2009 at 7:54 am

  6. Noble Ben, as Melville says!
    There’s a story behind this. A beastly critic who had never done a day’s work called me indefatigable, an insulting, dehumanizing word right up there with drone. My God, I had wrecked my health working day and night. So I wrote my feelings about “indefatigable” into Vol. 2, at page 688.

    P.S. HM did not know it but a researcher recently found that he himself was kin to the noble Benjamin Franklin.

    "hershel Parker"

    April 9, 2009 at 6:44 pm

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