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.
Let me indulge myself Hitchens style by recounting a little episode from my youth, when I was a young grammar-school boy in Harold Hill, Essex. One morning in the winter of 1963–64 I met my father walking the streets when I was on my way to school. He had been given the sack at Ford’s and was desperately looking for another job before my mother found out. I was sworn to secrecy. He was to spend the next four or five years doing a succession of low-paid casual labouring jobs interspersed with regular bouts of unemployment before eventually finding another permanent job. This is the sort of memory that sticks. Today, of course, there are many, many more
Hitchens obviously has some trouble with this. Socialists getting angry over such things seems to be outside his experience. Indeed, he concludes that Newsinger ‘is a very shockable person’. Not true. The last time I was shocked by a development in British politics was when Harold Wilson supported the Americans in Vietnam. No one who knows me would describe me as ‘shockable’. But, of course, Hitchens probably only intended the remark to be insulting.
What about Hitchens himself though? What makes him angry? Now I don’t want to be too unfair here because I have long admired his writing despite its tendency to Oxbridge swank and will I’m sure continue to do so. On the evidence of his Larkin article, however, what really makes him angry is not the viciously racist and anti-working-class opinions that Larkin regularly shared with some of his friends but my and Terry Eagleton’s attack on them. For some reason, however, he does find Larkin’s remark celebrating Robin Blackburn’s victimization to be ‘especially painful’. In what way is this especially painful compared to his wish to see the working class starve and the police attack black spectators (‘those black scum’) at Lord’s? Of course Blackburn’s victimization was appalling, indeed Larkin’s remark was probably prompted by a speech Blackburn made at a solidarity meeting I helped organize at Hull University at around that time. But is it really ‘especially painful’ compared to other things Larkin had to say? There is a lack of balance, a loss of perspective here. Even when he goes on to discuss Larkin’s anti-semitism (incidentally the only worthwhile part of the article), which was admittedly much milder than his hatred of black people, Hitchens seems to be writing more about abstract ideas rather than prejudices that have an effect in the real world.
Similarly with the exception he takes to my remarks about Kingsley Amis. His anger is such that he even corrects my English! Did the editor of Race and Class, he asks, mean to print an apparent wish for the death of an author? For a moment Hitchens actually had me feeling guilty for wishing that Michael Heseltine’s heart attack would prove fatal. But why is he so pompous and po-faced about what I regard as healthy and legitimate abuse of someone on the Right? As far as I’m concerned anyone who has wet dreams about Margaret Thatcher deserves to die. Oops! There I go again. But hold on, can this uncharacteristically precious Christopher Hitchens be the same Christopher Hitchens who wrote so eloquently of ‘the ghoul of Calcutta’—Mother Teresa no less—and urged us senator Gerry Brown
After rubbishing Eagleton and me, Hitchens goes on to pronounce his own judgement on Larkin. Now it is worth remembering that he has denounced us because our crude, simplistic and insensitive polemics play into the hands of reaction. He then goes on to trump anything we have written with the remarkable discovery that Larkin was a ‘thwarted fascist’. This is decided on very slim evidence indeed: some letters Larkin wrote during the War, his admiration for D.H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys, and John Harrison’s book, The Reactionaries which doesn’t even mention Larkin. One can only admire Hitchens’ nerve. After the abuse heaped on us this is the best he can do, pull a fascist rabbit out of the hat. The evidence is just not there to support the conclusion. It is really all rather scandalous considering his earlier remarks, but Hitchens seems to believe that his way with words, a sort of ‘sleight of mouth’, will allow him to get away with anything.
One last point: Hitchens suggests that Enoch Powell gave voice to Larkin’s prejudices. My own view is that it was Margaret Thatcher rather that Powell who achieved this distinction. She made a determined effort to turn the reactionary prejudices of middle-class Britain into government policy. Larkin’s devotion for her shows that he at least was fully aware of this.