Trouble at Willow Gables
(Edited highlights of the panel's review)
This is a pretty odd one. Why did
Philip Larkin want to do spanking
at Mallory Towers?
First of all, I think you could throw
away half the book and not publish
it. He realised he couldn't write novels.
They were dead in water. They're awful,
like parody bad novels. No excuse for
publishing them. The other half,
more interesting for people, for
anyone, these schoolgirls' novels
which have been billed as lesbian,
but they are not. But they're kind
of jolly school girl romps, the kind
that Arthur Marshall used to write
about. They're beautifully done.
When he writes it himself, he can't
do it. He explains it as a novelist has
to be interested in people. He wasn't
sufficiently interested in people.
But when he's writing in this genre
fiction, it comes alive. I had an
enjoyable Saturday morning
reading that. It made me feel
happy, cosy world, pleasant,
intricate plot. It worked.
Do you think he was writing the book
for sexual or literary reasons, in as
much as you can separate those?
I'm not sure why he was writing at
all. I think he can probably manage
the schoolgirls because he doesn't
really see them as people. He was
looking at them as if they were on
a slab in a butcher's window.
Described in terms of their
slimness, firmness, lips are coral
and so on. The extraordinary thing
is if you have any understanding of
girls' schools, they are emotional
hot houses, like walking into a fire
storm going in amongst adolescent
girls, as any young male teacher
will tell you. It's not very funny.
You're treating it as if it is
No, I'm not. It belongs in
the genre of girls' own fiction,
which I grew up on, except that it
doesn't understand, well, he thinks
it is more knowing than it is. We
talked about novels called Dimsy
Pulls it Off. He's relating to that
genre in a peculiar way.
The books you read were not written
by librarians from Hull.
I think that is the point about
Larkin. He is a librarian. It is
important to remember that.
It is fascinating. I didn't read it for
the narrative. There is a wonderful,
soapy quality. He's discovering
his imagination. He writes the
most beautiful prose. He's taken
his imagination out to lunch. It is
all very, very controlled.
It reminded me, oddly enough,
of De Quincy. It is the wonderful
surfaces that you get. Both writers,
it is like some sort of '40s American film,
wearing silk pyjamas and smoking
Turkish cigarettes. Creative indolence
One or two dark moments of prejudice,
but I've been that way with Larkin
before. We all know it exists. But
this is the beginning of wonderful
poems. Occasionally, you see
moments that will become a poem
later down the line. But the
extraordinary self-sufficiency of
this imagination, to write English
prose like this at the age of 21 is an
Larkin was famously an atheist, you
would hope for his sake he's right.
He threw away what he wrote and
after his death this short shelf has
been expanded. It's not right is it?
Also these dud novels at the end.
You finish one scene and then
you have another draft of it.
They are very interesting.
The reactionary father is there.
He was embarrassed by it.
I think it is fascinating.
Do you think we need all that
stuff that he clearly wouldn't
This is a very young and ambitious
writer, going on to write two very
He had written those novels before the
two dud novels.