HE would have been Britain’s foremost poet had the offer of the laureateship come before his health and art had slipped into mortal decline.
But the formal recognition that eluded Philip Larkin in life may be yet be in his grasp more than a quarter of a century after he died under a steadily growing campaign to have him installed in Poets’ Corner.
Aware that his best years were behind him, he declined an invitation to be Poet Laureate in 1984, although he would have accepted had he been approached earlier.
The laureateship Larkin missed was taken by Yorkshire’s Ted Hughes, who joined the illustrious cast of great UK writers in Poets’ Corner this month when a memorial stone was unveiled in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.
It was a prospect that seemed to exasperate Larkin when he reflected on declining the laureateship and joked to his friend Kingsley Amis: “the thought of being the cause of Ted’s being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with. ‘There is regret. Always there is regret.’ Smoking can damage your bum.”
It is perhaps this irreverent last line, a typical Larkin sign-off, which might explain why his investiture has not come before – he is challenging, and not just through his art. But to those who believe he deserves a place among giants such as Hardy, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens, there is no doubting his greatness.
Professor James Booth, literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society, which is patiently arguing his case, said of Hughes beating Larkin to the honour: “He is a much more comfortable person for the establishment than Larkin. He doesn’t trouble anyone very much. He’s loyal.
“Larkin is a remarkable, extraordinary genius so he threatens people. Larkin is a great writer so he’s a bit uncomfortable and causes people to get their emotions up and respond in a powerful way, whereas Hughes writes his own horror-comic version of Beatrix Potter.”
Larkin’s cause is also being championed by former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, a friend and former colleague of the Hull University librarian, and like Prof Booth, a Larkin biographer.
Sir Andrew said: “I strongly support this. I think he really should be there and the sooner the better. I think this would be a wonderful idea. It’s my great determination over the new year to include him because it’s a recognition he thoroughly deserves.”
But Larkin’s most passionate advocate is the woman who perhaps knew him as well as anyone – Betty Mackereth, his “loaf-haired” secretary of 30 years, who last year talked publicly for the first time about their relationship.
Miss Mackereth, 87, called it her “life’s ambition”, and wondered whether Larkin’s premonition of his untimely death at the age of 63 in 1985 had influenced his decision to turn down the laureateship.
“I feel strongly because it’s 26 years since he died,” she said. “I want to know why he isn’t there.
“I know Philip was asked to be Poet Laureate but he said he couldn’t write a poem about royal babies. But I think he knew, he told me years and years ago he would die when he was 63, so I said you will because you have programmed yourself to do it.”
Miss Mackereth also spoke candidly about what it was like to be the “third woman”; Larkin had a complex personal life and at times was simultaneously also in relationships with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan.
She said: “I knew about Monica and I knew about Maeve, and he would tell me bits and I knew that Monica was the one, but Maeve wanted to be the one and as soon as Philip died she became the widow.”
Recalling one of her last visits before Larkin died, she said: “He was propped up in bed looking at this TV at the end of his bed and there was a far-away look on his face, and I thought you are not long for here. He just said ‘Maeve came to see me. I didn’t want to see Maeve, I wanted to see Monica to tell her I loved her’. Because of that I feel she is his soul-mate.”
Because of the rivalry between the other two women, Miss Mackereth vowed to keep their relationship secret: “Maeve was jealous of Monica and Monica was jealous of Maeve. I said ‘Philip, nobody shall ever know. I shall never tell a soul’.”
But although she felt “like a wife” she knew their relationship had limits. “I would never have married him,” she said. “I wasn’t in love with him and he wasn’t in love with me; we had a great respect for each other and we had an affinity.”