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“Larkin with Women” in Eskdale

September 7, 2017

Who was “the one”?


Scene one. The poet, wrestling with the final verse of An Arundel Tomb, calls out to Monica: “Heraldic, two syllables, with oomph!” Fans in the audience bite their fists, and partners kick shins; it’s a play not a pantomime. But Monica comes up with “blazon” and smiles contentedly when she reads the soon to be famous final line “What will survive of us is love”. 

Scene two. The librarian hides his dirty magazine stash from his secretary. No-nonsense Betty turns a blind eye until a letter from the vice squad arrives – he’s been rumbled.  Larkin panics but Betty forces him to take a call from his fellow porn connoisseur, Bob Conquest. It’s a set-up!

And so it goes. Readers of the letters and biographies will know most of the stories; the hedgehog and the mower, Mrs Thatcher and Deceptions, jazz, drinking, and – three women.

Monica Jones, his intellectual equal, has stuck with him ever since Larkin’s best friend Kingsley Amis drew on her as the model for uptight Margaret Beale in Lucky Jim; she must love him to stay around after that. Betty Mackereth knows all his secrets, including that Monica takes precedence, but loves him all the same. Repressed Maeve Brennan, bowled over by a published poet, waits 15 years to go all the way; of course she loves him.

Ben Brown’s Larkin with Women tells the story of his 30-year entanglement with the trio. It’s been revived many times and this summer came to the village hall in the North Yorkshire hamlet of Glaisdale. One wonders how such a place can support even a summer season of professional theatre, but every year it does; Larkin easily sold out thirty shows. We, drawn by Larkin, had come up from Nottingham. Two ladies sitting next to us had come from Whitby. Conversation: “Not much of a looker.” “Miserable too.” “What did they see in him?” “I guess there are no ugly poets.”

We had popped in before the show to look around the empty theatre, and one of the scene shifters had told us its story. Esk Valley Theatre has been running ten years – Willy Russell’s Educating Rita last year – with minimal subsidy but much local volunteering.  The company bring their own seating and put on one production annually. They have some connection with Scarborough where Alan Ayckbourn tries out most of his plays; Larkin with Women was first performed there in 1999, and Ayckbourn himself had turned up in the audience the previous night.

And the play? The women were all brilliant, but I was disappointed in the Larkin character. Jonathan Pembroke occasionally showed a clunking lack of empathy, almost playing him as somewhere “on the spectrum”. The Freudian slip of admiring Monica’s “maeve” sheets was OK, but the laugh he got when denying that he’d had sex with Maeve, by gratuitously adding “not by choice”, grated. Larkin was selfish but, judging by the poems, few people were more empathic. Perhaps it’s difficult to differentiate selfishness and lack of empathy in a few lines.  

There were plenty of jokes. Waving a newspaper article about a woman who shrieked and vomited at a Ted Hughes poetry reading, he mutters: “I never felt like shrieking!” Tussling with Maeve he comes out with: “Marriage is a wonderful thing for other people, like going to the stake.”

But there was also much Larkin melancholy. Although death came late to his fourth woman, his mother, cancer comes to Larkin a good bit earlier. He asks Betty to give Monica a lift to the hospital. Maeve gives him her bible. The women meet by the death bed, each wanting to be told she is “the one”. Larkin withholds that comfort, although he does admit to loving Monica. Nor will he pretend to the faith he does not hold.

But we the audience have had time to read An Arundel Tomb more carefully than Monica did that day. To get to know the layers of ambiguity he got into that final line.

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

The pun in the play’s title was misplaced. All Larkin’s women were “the one”.

Jim Thornton

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