Racism and Hate at the Heart of England’s Poetry

CW: racist and classist language.

The Telegraph on March 6th published an article by Craig Simpson entitled “Philip Larkin statue placed on secret racism review’s list following Black Lives Matter protests”. It covers the viewing of “secret” emails shared among staff at Hull City Council revealing how they “quietly began compiling a list of major statues of concern in the city”.

Oxford English Literature graduate, and Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry holder Larkin, who died in 1985, was honoured with a statue in the city in 2010. He moved there in 1955, and worked as a librarian while penning verse which earned him an offer to become poet laureate, which he declined.

Among other monuments in the city, which are rightly cause for concern are Zachariah Pearson, an enthusiastic supporter of the slave-owning Confederate States of America, and like-minded Famine Queen, Victoria.

The Telegraph’s revelation that Larkin’s name was on the list has apparently provoked “outrage” among his supporters. His biographer James Booth declared: “Anyone who reads only Larkin’s published poems will find no trace of racism.” So, that’s alright then: read the poems in the published collections, but avert your eyes from Larkin’s published letters, including the three little poetic gems quoted below.

Selected Letters was published in 1992. In them he shares his toxic, hate-filled views with other exemplars of the English intelligentsia such as Monica Jones, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest and Colin Gunner; views that Larkin’s biographer, James Booth, describes as simply the “casual racism common in post-war England”.  In them, Larkin explains he had stopped going to test matches because there were “too many fucking n****rs about”.  When he did eventually go to a match at Lords he objected to  “those black scum kicking up a din on the boundary” and wished that a “squad of South African police” could have “sorted them out”.

The letters to friends like Conquest and Kingsley Amis are infested with terms like “n****r”, “w*p”, “c**n” and “w*g”.

He described West Indian communities as “rampaging hordes of blacks” who would “steal anything they can lay their hands on”.

His views on race were complemented with equally venomous views on class. In one communication he complained bitterly that “the children of the striking classes” were being allowed into the universities.  He described the parents of these students (among whom I number myself) as “lower class bastards”.

This great English poet penned the two masterpieces below on these subjects, promoting prison for striking workers, judicial corporal punishment for miscreants and, last but not least, compulsory repatriation for those West Indians who had answered Britain’s invitation to them to help rebuild “the mother country” after the war.

“Prison for strikers
Bring back the cat.
Kick out the n****rs
How about that?”

1970, Hull University Archives, Hull History Centre 

“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.”

1976 (ibid)

Margaret Thatcher for Larkin was “a superb creature…right and beautiful”. He responded to the misery of unemployment in the early 1980s by writing that he hoped the Tories would “abolish unemployment benefit”.

During the same period of rising unemployment he wrote:

“After Healey’s trading figures, 
After Wilson’s squalid crew,
And the rising tide of n****rs —
What a treat to look at you”

His default adulation of the queen exposes sycophantic royalism, a trait which still runs through much of English society of all classes, as Meghan Markle’s recent exposure of the crude racism of the royal family, ”The Institution”, has shown, unleashing a wave of nauseating national sycophancy from outraged English patriots like the splenetic, simpering Piers Morgan. Against those commentators who claim working-class outrage at a rich woman complaining about anything, including racism, I would argue that is no disqualification and the fact that SHE is wealthy doesn’t make THEM any less odious.

During the miner’s strike (1984-5) Larkin nostalgically evoked a hypothetical scenario where 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 doing that.”

Dissenting Hull City Council officials, according to The Telegraph, warned that a racism review of Larkin could cause a “public backlash”, and asked colleagues to “tread carefully” as holding unpalatable views “does not equate to being a slave trader”.

Arguing via email, they stated that: “Lumping Larkin into any discussion about slave trading etc is not helpful to anyone.”

It is not suggested that Larkin was directly involved in slave-trading, just that he espoused the contempt, hate and twisted view of humanity that inspired it.

However council officials added “We are not publicising any of this unless directly approached…as [I] agree sometimes raising an issue creates the problem.” Neat inversion of logic, that.

The same pro-Larkin voices added that Larkin was a “complicated” figure and many in Hull “recall him with affection”. 

More nauseating, oleaginous writhing is exemplified in comments like “We do need to be clear and careful, and recognise that views unpalatable to us may not detract from [his] achievements.”

Larkin’s biographer Booth told The Telegraph that Larkin had “omnivorous empathy” and that “he was a fundamentally decent and compassionate man and there is no record of him ever acting on a racist impulse.” Then, in a somersault of breathtaking disingenuousness, “he would be mortified to know that his words were causing hurt to vulnerable readers for whose ears they were not intended.” I love the allusion to the “vulnerable” in that fake remorse; and how dare the peasants be offended by conversations which they are not supposed to overhear.  Transparently offensive and naively apologist these comments certainly are.  These reactions and Booth’s biography of Larkin per se, are part of a determined effort to play down his political views so that he can be maintained in his place as a much-loved English national poet.

In his biography of this delinquent Englishman, Booth writes “all the political heft of a pre-schooler showing off his hoard of dirty words to épater the aunties and get in with the big kids. No word was dirtier than “n****r”, and Larkin used it extensively to his boys-room cronies, for the usual boys-room reasons.” This craven indulgence towards Larkin’s visceral, hate-filled spleen is of the insulting “boys letting off steam” kind: it is singularly lacking in any remorse for the victims of the deadly outcomes of such attitudes throughout Britain’s history.

It occurs to me, as a descendant of Larkin’s “lower class bastards” that my studies in philosophy at Sussex University had at least one benefit: my later interest in onomastics (the study of names). I note that the surname Larkin has two entirely distinct origins: as an English surname, a diminutive of Lawrence; and as an Irish surname, an anglicisation of Ó Lorcáin, most likely from the Gaelic personal name Lorc (meaning “fierce”). Of the latter origin, I would regard Jim Larkin (1876-1947) born in Liverpool to poor Irish parents. He was a founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and leader of the Dublin workers in the notorious 1913 Dublin Lockout. For me Jim is an antidote to the venomous Philip;  and his statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin, with the famous hands upraised, serves as an inspiration to rise up against the poisonous race and class hatred at the heart of England’s elitism, incarnate in the morbid figure of Philip Larkin.

Patrick Carey

Photo: Philip Larkin statue in Hull, by summonedbyfells, published under CC BY 2.0.