To Julian Barnes, on 27 September 1985, Philip Larkin wrote concerning an encounter with almost the only woman he ever admitted to ‘adoring’:
Your anecdote reminds me of a brief exchange I once had with Mrs T., who told me she liked my wonderful poem about a girl. My face must have expressed incomprehension. ‘You know’, she said. ‘Her mind was full of knives.’ I took that as a great compliment—I thought that if it weren’t spontaneous she’d have got it right—but I am a child in these things. I also thought that she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads.
Anyway, there must be something about the poem.
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:
Of course I was drugged, and so heavily that I did not regain my consciousness till the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.
Mayhew: London Labour and the London Poor
Prompted by this miniature trouvaille of helpless misery and exploitation, the poem takes up the story transmitted across the past:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the sun to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair,
To burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic.
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.