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This review is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Cover of Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves
Ross Cogan‘ogh ogh ogh bum’

John Sutherland, Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves (Weidenfeld & Niicholson) £20
There’s something about genius – especially early-flowering genius – that can distort the mind. You often see it in the best chess players, who can become Grandmasters in their early teens. It’s as if so much skill, so narrowly focused, can’t exist in the brain without stunting its other faculties. At the extreme end you get Bobby Fischer with his infantile tantrums, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

There was something of the Grandmaster in Philip Larkin. His genius only worked in a highly structured, rigorously rule-bound environment. He would work on poems slowly and meticulously, saving up a choice word as you might a new line in the Najdorf, knowing that you could only play it once before the surprise was lost. And his talent started blooming early – the juvenilia he wrote at sixteen is better and more interesting than most poets’ mature work.

But as his genius developed the rest of him atrophied. Emotionally he seems to have changed little after 1940, except to get gloomier, and to the end of his life was happiest in a world of Armstrong’s Hot Five, Willow Gables, Dexter and Compton, dirty mags, and ‘ogh ogh ogh bum’ with Kingsley. A lot of people have given a lot of time to trying to understand Larkin’s emotional depths, motivations and relationships (and not just with women – Richard Bradford devoted an entire book to his relationship with Amis). Were he and Monica co-dependent? Was he ‘coercively controlling’? I would respectfully suggest that this is a pointless exercise. In my ...

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