[with:] Philip Larkin, photographic portrait, 204 x 152mm, quarter length, inscribed on the reverse (“With love from Philip April 25th 1941”, photographer’s stamp (“Gillman and Soame, Photographers, Oxford”); two letters by Philip Brown, a mutual friend in Oxford, to Iles, in pencil, 1944, in an envelope; a copy of Norman Iles, A Way Through A War With Letters from Philip Larkin (2007)
“You see, my trouble is that I simply can’t understand anybody doing anything but write, paint, compose music – I can understand their doing things as a means to these ends, but I can’t see what a man is up to who is satisfied to follow a profession in the normal way.” (16 April 1944)
In early 1942 the circumstances of the two men changed significantly when Iles was called up for military service whilst Larkin was exempted on the grounds of his poor eyesight, as he explained in a letter: “I am Grade IV. What this implies I don’t know, and can’t find out, but I think that it releases me from most of the carnage even if it doesn’t let me stay at Oxford” (8 January 1942). In fact Larkin did stay at Oxford, and over the next two years wrote to Iles of the uncertain progress of the war, his doubts about civilian morale, his hatred of patriotism, the Beveridge Report (“...a necessary step towards an insect-state...”, 30 December 1942), Kingsley Amis and other mutual friends (“...Kingsley is at Catterick and we exchange long and funny letters. At least his are long and mine are funny...”, 2 September 1943), and his own experience of psychoanalysis (“...My efforts to ‘get out into the world’ were proceeding slowly towards success, but I had a dream last night that knocked it all to buggery...”, 30 December 1942). Iles was deeply unhappy in the army, coming close to court martial and eventually resigning his commission. Larkin wrote sympathetically about the “packet of shit you have landed in” (7 April 1943) but this did not entirely prevent him from complaining about Oxford life: “College is all right – a bit lonely at times – esp. at night – but I have got the gramophone in my room now and the quad resounds to ‘Gimme a Pigfoot’, ‘Do Your Duty’, ‘Oh Peter’, ‘Bugle Call Rag’, ‘I’m Tired of Fattening Frogs for Snakes’, &c...” (December 1942). He also continued to tell Iles about his writing (“...I have finished a wittily pornographic story about a girls’ school, and am embarked upon a serious one now about a scholarship boy at Oxford. Silly little brute...”, 19 July 1943). On 10 November 1943 Larkin wrote to Iles in typically lugubrious terms about the opening of a new chapter in his life: “The job which prevents me from coming to Oxford is that of librarian at Wellington. It’s not where the school is, nor in New Zealand, in fact I am not sure where it is except that it is not far from Wolverhampton. Anyway it has no librarian & this little nest I am trying to crash with the aid of my First and a servile manner which will make them think correctly that they can bully me.”
Whilst Larkin moved from Oxford to librarianship and began to make a name for himself as a writer, Iles went from the army to working in aircraft factories and coal mines, later engaging in peace work in Poland and running a Community Centre in Wales. He became a prolific but unregarded writer with a large family and idealistic left-wing politics. Although the two men could hardly have grown further apart, they continued a friendly correspondence. Larkin describes his own life in depreciating terms (“...Living at home gives a certain base comfort in exchange for fairly constant irritation and embarrassment: my job is I suppose no worse than most jobs – what I want is no job at all. In the evenings I piddle about pretending to write, and keep a waspish journal...”, 15 January 1950) and updates Iles on their old friends (“...Kingsley is off to Princeton to teach ‘creative writing’ in September, so American literature will take a sharp swerve, upwards or downwards, before long...”, 10 August 1958). Larkin describes meeting such luminaries as W.H. Auden and F.R. Leavis (“...Pure paranoiac I shd say, & all the old ideas rattling like dried peas” (3 May 1966), and writes wryly about the laureateship (“...Well, nobody asked me to be Laureate, if you still remember all that stuff: just as well, as I shd hardly have known what to reply. I’d probably have said no, but all have the world in our hearts you know. I can tickle a corgi under the chin as well as the next man...”, 6 February 1973). He advises Iles on publishing and gives extensive commentary on Iles’s poems. Whilst respectful of the thoughts which Iles was trying to express, he was rarely complementary of Iles’s poetry. In one letter indeed, he accuses him of “puling sentimentality”, “excruciating smugness”, and “tediousness of extended metaphor” (“...Christ, aren’t I a rude bastard...”); this letter concludes with a typically understated comment on his own work: “I have also just sent off a new collection of poems, very thin stuff ... At present it is called THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS” (12 June 1963).
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