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Philip Larkin, image manager

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 17, 2009 01:56 PM

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Philip Larkin: steel beneath the tweed

In 1956, John Shakespeare, then an journalist and later a noted diplomat, wrote the first profile of the poet Philip Larkin to appear in the British press. Shakespeare this month revealed, however -- in the TLS -- that the piece was in part written by Larkin, who had demanded the right to vet it as a condition of the interview.

Why do journalists, in general, refuse to let sources see drafts of their articles? Let Shakespeare's essay serve as an object lesson.

In the weeks following an enjoyable conversation, Larkin "bombarded me with letters and suggestions about his profile, all in beautiful precise prose," Shakespeare writes. To put it nicely, Larkin displayed "persnickety" tendencies. Less so, he was "something of a control freak."

When Shakespeare finally mailed a draft of his piece to Larkin, who worked as a librarian at the University of Hull, the poet responded with a brief , polite letter saying that he would soon offer "a few suggestions." Indeed. The next day, Larkin unloaded several thousand words' worth of corrections, tweaks and wholesale rewrites.

"Firstly, I'm afraid we really must cut out the less discreet parts," Larkin wrote, "about hating work and so on … I've got to keep my 'persona' in this University." ("I hate work," Larkin had told Shakespeare, not leaving much room for interpretation, adding that a librarian's job was a good one for someone with such a disposition.)

"Secondly," he wrote a few lines later, "and this is a bit less clear cut, I think you have drawn a picture of a very feeble negative kind of creature, typical life-hating bookworm, which I am most loath to accept."

Facing down a deadline, Shakespeare accepted most of the edits and rewrites Larkin provided, which extended to physical description:

Tall and balding, he chooses his clothes with care, only a favourite tweed fishing-hat suggesting that he is not content to pass unnoticed in a crowd. Though habitually serious, his expression is lit up by flashes of frequently-unkind amusement and faithfully portrays his outlook on life, which has been well described as a "vivacious melancholy."

Asked in subsequent years for an interview, Larkin would sometimes refer journalists to "Shakespeare's" profile. The TLS's editor, Peter Stothard, writes that Shakespeare's new account of the episode shows "a steely will in the making."

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