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An Episode in the Larkin Wars
Christopher Hitchens’ article on ‘Larkin and “Sensitivity” ’ in nlr 200 is as energetic an exercise in sectarian bile as I have seen on the Left in recent years. My seven-page review of Larkin’s Selected Letters that appeared in the journal Race and Class seems to have caused him particular upset. I find it difficult to understand why it provoked such an abusive response (‘pseudo-leftist’, ‘philistine’, ‘bovine’, ‘obscurantist’) from another socialist. Larkin, I argued, was always a rightwing conservative, but whereas that conservatism had a nostalgic cast in the 1950s, in the 1960s and 1970s it became increasingly reactionary. He was certainly not alone in undergoing this transformation. It was a widespread response among sections of the middle class to industrial confrontation, student revolt, feminism and black power. This reaction was very much the other side of the nostalgic Larkin that was known through his verse. From this point of view Larkin can be seen as typical of much of conservative middle-class British culture. Not too outrageous a point surely? Why such an abusive and insulting attack then? The answer lies, I think, in Hitchens’ appeal to his own background as credential for a privileged understanding of Larkin. Regular Hitchens readers are introduced, not for the first time, to his father (I can still remember the moving scene inPrepared for the Worst where the decision is taken to send young Christopher to public school) and it seems clear that my review is seen as an attack on the man and on that particular section of middle-class Britain wherein Hitchens has his roots. I must confess that I am quite sympathetic to this. My own response to Larkin’s Selected Letters is similarly privileged although by a somewhat different background.
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