Saturday, June 18, 2016

Peace, love and misunderstanding

In response to the murder of MP Jo Cox, the Poetry Society posted Philip Larkin's poem 'The Mower' on Twitter, specifically highlighting its poignant final lines: "we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time." What a perfect sentiment for the circumstances, you might think. Many people did, as evidenced by the fact that it has had more than 2,200 retweets and 2,200 likes to date, when most of their tweets struggle to attract double figures.

I'm all for it being demonstrated that poetry has a place in the modern world, that its messages can be not only relevant but urgent. However, I can't help but think that the choice of poem - or, rather, the choice of poet - is perverse. While those concluding lines might preach mutual empathy, respect, tolerance and generosity of spirit, the fact remains that Larkin has been posthumously unmasked not only as the son of someone who openly expressed admiration for Hitler but also as a closet racist and xenophobe himself.

There's little doubt, for instance, that someone who wrote the following - which his biographer Andrew Motion describes as a "grumpy post-imperial quatrain" - would have been a vehement UKIP supporter, if not worse: "The flag you fly for us is furled, / Your history speaks when ours is done, / You have not welcomed in the scum / First of Europe, then the world."

In 1972, in another letter, Larkin noted that "one child in eight born now is of immigrant parents. Cheerful outlook, isn't it? Another fifty years and it'll be like living in bloody India - tigers prowling about, elephants too, shouldn't wonder." You can easily imagine him sympathising with Farage, Griffin and company - as he probably did with Enoch Powell.

All of which makes Larkin an extraordinarily inappropriate poet to quote in tribute to a politician killed by a man with far-right sympathies who is alleged to have shouted "Britain first!" while carrying out the attack.

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