Ian Smith [+]
Writer, Broadcaster and Musician
Larkin reads English at Oxford University and continues to write seriously. In a University of gender-segregated colleges, his key personal and literary friendships are almost exclusively male, and formed in and around the process of listening to jazz, discussing its meaning and construction, and the force of its statements. Both Larkin and his close university friend Kingsley Amis testify (in autobiographical writing) to how their discussion of jazz often had an intensity of engagement and attention greater than the energy they brought to bear on academic work or literary criticism in general. The time spent in intimate and passionate discussion of jazz, and also the heavy consumption of alcohol, set enduring templates for Larkin’s artistic and personal life. Though Larkin never mentions it in his own writing, Amis reveals that Larkin had made himself, by this time, a more than capable jazz pianist. His response to the question “How did you do that?” was a perfect snippet of his ability to turn aeasthetic attainment into melancholic self-deprecation: “years of trying”. More difficult to trace, but equally essential to Larkin’s biography, are the sexual currents and experiences woven into this social and musical circle. Andrew Motion’s biography discreetly but clearly sets out that Larkin had a physical love affair with at least one of the university circle, Philip Brown, and that conflicted feelings of desire and self-disgust are delineated in Larkin’s writing of the time, both published and unpublished. In the cultural imagination that Larkin shared, Jazz was inextricably linked to “perverse” sexuality. This link was not only because of the brothels of Chicago and New Orleans, or the double and single entendres of the blues tradition, but because of the close connection between jazz and interracial sexuality: for example, the Cotton Club, and other “black and tan” clubs in Harlem, were formative spaces for jazz which consciously exploited a white audience whose enjoyment of African American physicality began with voyeuristic titillation and frequently extended into other forms of “sexual tourism”. For Larkin, did the sexual freedoms and directness of jazz offer a means of access to feelings and physical impulses in himself; feelings and impulses that he would otherwise have buried as unacceptably perverse? (And to what extent would a psychoanalytic reading of his letters and prose conclude that his moments of racial spite involve an element of denouncing his own perverse inner self? Do some of the contradictions of a man whose personal pantheon sets Louis Armstrong beside Enoch Powell reflect a man in conflict with his own feelings?) In all other ways, Larkin’s writing declares that the “enormous yes” that jazz inspires is a positive thing. His phrase unmistakeably hints at a cultural fulfilment that is positively orgasmic (perhaps Larkin had read or heard that Sidney Bechet’s sexuality was apparently not only voracious but as undiscriminating in its objects).