STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Eminent Churchillians—Andrew Roberts
  • The Holy Fox: A Biography of Lord Halifax—Andrew Roberts
  • The Tender Bar: A Memoir—J. R. Moehringer
  • The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—George Saunders
  • Only in London—Hanan Al-Shaykh
  • Traffics and Discoveries—Rudyard Kipling
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare—G. K. Chesterton
  • Ghosting: A Double Life—Jennie Erdal
  • Untold Stories—Alan Bennett
  • Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985—Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite
  • Scenes from Life—William Cooper

BOOKS READ:

  • Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985—Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite
  • On Beauty—Zadie Smith
  • Five Days in London, May 1940—John Lukacs
  • All the King’s Men—Robert Penn Warren
  • Only in London—Hanan Al-Shaykh
  • What Good Are the Arts?—John Carey
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare—G. K. Chesterton

If, as a recent survey in the UK suggested, most people buy books because they like to be seen reading rather than because they actually enjoy it, then I would suggest that you can’t beat a collection of letters by an author—and if that author is a poet, then so much the better. The implication is clear: you know the poet’s work inside out (indeed, what you’re saying is that if you read his or her entire oeuvre one more time, then the lines would ring round and round in your head like a Kelly Clarkson tune), and you now need something else, something that might help to shed some light on some of the more obscure couplets.

So there I am, reading Larkin’s letters every chance I get, and impressing the hell out of anyone who spots me doing so. (Never mind that I never go anywhere, and that therefore the only person likely to spot me doing so is my partner, who at the time I’m most likely to be reading Larkin’s letters is very much a sleeping partner.) And what I’m actually reading is stuff like this: “Katherine Mansfield is a cunt.” “I think this [poem] is really bloody cunting fucking good.” “I have just made up a rhyme: After a particularly good game of rugger / A man called me a bugger / Merely because in a loose scrum / I had my cock up his bum.” “Your letter found me last night when I came in off the piss: in point of fact I had spewed out of a train window and farted in the presence of ladies and generally misbehaved myself.” And so on. In other words, you get to have your cake and eat it: you look like un homme ou femme sérieux/sérieuse, but you feel like a twelve-year-old who’s somehow being allowed to read Playboy in an English lesson. And what you come to realize is that the lifestyle of a naughty twelve-year-old is enervating to the max, if you’re a grown-up; indeed, there are quite a few thirteen-year-olds who would find great chunks of Larkin’s correspondence embarrassingly puerile.

The irony is that I was drawn to Larkin’s letters through that beautiful poem “Church Going,” which makes a case for the value of churches long after organized religion has lost its appeal and its point: “And that much never can be obsolete / Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.” This last line was quoted in an article I was reading in the Economist, of all places, and it struck a post-Gilead chord with me, so I reread a few of the poems and then decided that I’d like access to the prose version of the mind that created them. And yes, you can see where Larkin’s hunger to become more serious came from; if I had a mouth like that, I’d have wanted to pay frequent visits to God’s house, too.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby is the author, most recently, of a novel titled A Long Way Down.


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