The relationship between Philip Larkin and Monica Jones was tormented almost from the beginning, says Rachel Cooke in The Observer. They met in 1947 at University College, Leicester, where she was an English lecturer and Larkin the assistant librarian. They became a couple three years later and remained one until his death in 1985, even though “he would not live even in the same city as her and … was always cheating”.
Their “ceaseless emotional conflicts, as well as their attraction for one another”, were detailed in Larkins letters to her, published posthumously in 2010. Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me: Her Life and Long Loves (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) redresses this “partial” view, as John Sutherland, a favourite former student of hers, was given access to Jones’s many thousands of letters to Larkin, which had until then “languished” in the Bodleian, “unread”. While Sutherland wants to “rescue her reputation from the men who have so casually trashed it” – Kingsley Amis thought her “a grim old bag”; Christopher Hitchens described her as “frigid” and “hysterical” – the contents of her letters “make this close to impossible”.
Jones reveals herself to be a racist, an anti-Semite, an “emotional masochist” and an alcoholic, whose “chief interests” were cricket, gin and Larkin. “It’s not the job of a biographer to make his subject likeable”, but her only “claims to fame” are her teaching and the fact that “she clung to Larkin like ivy”.
I believe Jones was an indirect, but constant, force for good in his poetry, says John Sutherland in The Daily Telegraph, “not a stop to it”. She supplied “his paradoxical needs, despite it causing her pain, sometimes agony, as the Mrs Larkin who would never be”. The relationship was sad and sometimes toxic, says Blake Morrison in The Guardian. “A woman would have told her where to stick him.” But she had no female friends. In thrall to his genius, “her love for Larkin endured – and so did the misery that went with it.”
Available as an audiobook on Audible.
When Sir Henry “Chips” Channon questioned his reasons for keeping his diaries, he wondered, “Is it to relieve my feelings? Console my old age? Or to dazzle my descendants?” Alan Duncan writes in his introduction to In the Thick of It: The Private Diaries of a Minister (William Collins £25) that he began keeping his in order to “emote, to download and to vent my feelings … Instead of briefing the press, I wrote it down.”
For “instead of” read “as well as”, says Craig Brown in the Daily Mail. Duncan “has long had a reputation as a blabbermouth, and his diaries are full of gossipy lunches with political journalists”. His diaries, covering four years from January 2016, give “every indication of having been composed with publication in mind”. Ever since the success of Alan Clark’s diaries in the 1990s, “lesser political diarists have felt it expedient to pepper their texts with abuse against their colleagues”. Clark had a “natural gift for comedy” – Michael Heseltine looked like “a man who bought his own furniture”, Kenneth Clarke, a “pudgy puff-ball” and Douglas Hurd “might as well have a corncob up his arse”; whereas Duncan, a Conservative minister of state in two departments, but who never made it into the cabinet, resorts to insults that are “hand-me-down and interchangeable”.
Boris Johnson is “a clown” and “an embarrassing buffoon”, Michael Gove “an unctuous freak”, Priti Patel “a brassy monster”. Theresa May – who, when she is elected leader receives a text from Duncan, “Yipee x 1000! I am on the edge of joyful tears” – is dismissed as “a cardboard cut-out” a year later. Few politicians are without their vanities, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, “but the shrewder ones make some effort to try to disguise them”. Duncan revels in recording his shameless “self-puffery”.
“When I last spoke to Tony Blair, he told me, ‘You’re one of the ones our side fears.’ The old flatterer.” He details a “lovely text” from a junior minister: “Just leaving Turkey after a three-day visit. They LOVE you here.” And quotes a peer telling him, “You should be foreign secretary: you were magisterial today.” Duncan takes the slights and oversights more personally, however. “It’s nothing to do with talent or fairness: it’s just snakes and ladders and 90% luck.”
There is little new scandal of substance here, says Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. His detailing of daily events means, “More than once, the book teeters close to Alan Partridge territory.” From meetings on reducing unnecessary road signs – “one of my passions” – to improving the signage at the Foreign Office: “This will be my lasting legacy!” If Duncan does know of some smoking gun, says Hinsliff, “then he isn’t telling”.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo, read by the author.
Vintage fiction: Bomber
Len Deighton’s 1970 novel Bomber “is probably the best thing ever written about the wartime air campaign against Germany”, says Max Hastings in The Times. A flight attendant and illustrator before embarking on his writing career, 92-year-old Deighton has lived all over the world and written cookery and history books as well as fiction. His first spy novel, The Ipcress File, on which the Michael Caine film was based, was published in 1962 and set the tone for what followed – in a Deighton work, “the good guys cook and everybody who wears an Old Etonian tie turns out to be a traitor”.
Bomber, about a devastating (and fictional) 1943 bombing raid by the RAF, is more concerned with the mechanical. “Sometimes,” says one character, “I think it’s just the machines of Germany fighting the machines of Britain.” Aptly, the novel is credited as being the first to be written using a word processor: a 200lb IBM MT/ST that had to be craned in through the window of Deighton’s Georgian terrace home.
The machine helped Deighton cram the book with meticulous detail, such as how the bombing squadron used the same amount of aluminium as 11 million saucepans. He “leaves no doubt about his preferred use for aluminium”, said Robert Maurer in his review of Bomber for The New York Times when it first came out. “As the sickening tension mounts”, the reader doesn’t care about the winners and losers of war, but “when, if ever, all such journeys of destruction will cease”.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo from May 6.