To Julian Barnes, on 27 September 1985, Philip Larkin wrote concerning an encounter with almost the only woman he ever admitted to ‘adoring’:

The poem in Mrs Thatcher’s subconscious can only have been ‘Deceptions’, a line from which also furnishes the title of Larkin’s anthology The Less Deceived. It has the longest subscription of any of his poems, and one which may be worth giving in full:

Prompted by this miniature trouvaille of helpless misery and exploitation, the poem takes up the story transmitted across the past:

This exchange then, between Britain’s most reactionary postwar Prime Minister and Britain’s most conservative literary icon, seems almost but not quite to deserve the name of irony. On the face of it, Mrs Thatcher’s appreciation of poetry comes off as both rather slack and slightly didactic, while Philip Larkin’s feeling for the woes of womanhood and the hidden injuries of class emerges, even if bathed in a slightly sentimental melancholy, in a stronger light than has recently been emphasized. Most of all, by an accident of correspondence, we have the charming and durable picture of the Tory Boadicea, and the curmudgeonly provincial she so admired, as they exchange confusions over an image appropriated from Mayhew’s anatomy of the lower social depths.

This is a microcosm, not of the hidden reserves of humanity within Philip Larkin, but of the zone of ambiguity in which the argument over his artistic contribution must take place. Without wishing to seem even-handed about it, I have found perilously little in the current controversy—a controversy which has imported ‘Larkinesque’ into our vernacular as a synonym for crass or brash callousness—which evinces the least respect for the crucial and delicate task of discrimination. The Communist Party of Great Britain used to be associated with a journal of criticism entitled The Modern Quarterly. One contribution to that journal was an essay entitled ‘T.S. Eliot—Enemy of the People’. Polemics like these, apart from being bovine and obscurantist in their own right, are a free gift to the cause of reaction, which ever seeks to disguise itself as aesthetic detachment. The reception accorded to the publication of Larkin’s Selected Letters and to the biography by Andrew Motionfootnote was aptly summarized in a letter I received from Tom Paulin after the first wave of astonishment, disgust and rationalization had begun to recede. Paulin had opened a spirited exchange in the Times Literary Supplement, hoping to ignite a debate over the relationship between literary and political ideas; between Larkin’s standing as ‘national monument’ in poetry and the ‘open sewer’ of scabrous loathing over which that monument had been raised. His reach had exceeded his grasp—you could not get from the monument to the sewer, or back again, in time. A dialogue of dunces was the outcome: