LLast week, Radio 4 marked the centenary of his birth by grappling with the contested legacy of Philip Larkin, one of England’s greatest and most problematic poets. In the first episode of Larkin Revisited, a series that will explore that legacy through 10 poems, the presenter, poet laureate Simon Armitage, found himself discussing the word “dull” with his fellow poet Ian McMillan. Not perhaps the most promising of starts but, in its own way, Larkinesque.
The context was the poem Born Yesterday, which Larkin wrote for his friend Kingsley Amis’s newborn daughter, Sally. In it, he wishes her not beauty and innocence, but a life of drab ordinariness: “May you, in fact, be dull.” For McMillan, Larkin’s particular genius was made clear in the lines that immediately followed, where he audaciously redefined the word “dull” as a “vigilant, flexible/ Unemphasised, enthralled/ Catching of happiness”. It reminded us, McMillan said, of “all the things that dull can be, that ordinary can be.” Well, maybe so, but I can’t have been the only listener thinking: hang on a minute, isn’t a life of flexibility, vigilance and enthralment the very opposite of dull?
That quibble apart, the three programs so far deftly explore Larkin’s brilliance as well as confronting the racist and misogynist views he expressed from time to time in his letters. A timely subtext that, as Armitage put it, addresses the ways “we think about the separations we do and don’t make between life and art”.
Larkin made a brief appearance in the first installation of Ian Hislop’s three-part In Suburbia (Radio 4), though it was the altogether more amenable John Betjeman who memorably described the English suburbs as “the outskirt’s edges/ Where a few surviving hedges/ Keep alive our lost Elysium”.
Betjeman’s poem Middlesex, written in 1954, is a paean to a certain kind of middle-class contentment that the suburbs once symbolized. As Hislop noted, the poet’s sympathetic voice was the exception rather than the norm among authors, architects, musicians and other arbiters of cultural significance, for whom the suburbs were a kind of nowhere-land of net curtains and well-manicured lawns. “It was relatively safe, it was complacent, it was nice, it was just dull as hell,” the novelist Hanif Kureishi noted of his upbringing of him in Bromley. That suburban inertia, though, spawned Kureishi’s most celebrated novel by him, The Buddha of Suburbiaand it’s that dynamic – deep boredom begetting rich creativity – that Hislop sets out to investigate.
This opening episode roamed freely, but not too deeply, across the history, architecture and human anthropology of the suburbs, with the help of a everyone from Lee Mack to Chaucer, Stevie Smith and the Members, whose Sound of the Suburbs still sounds like the most raucous response to the ennui of the outskirts.
For me, the most intricately crafted and illuminating radio of the week was Inheritors of Partition, also Radio 4, in which Kavita Puri tackled the lasting effect of the 1947 partition of India on the lives of three third generation descendants of those who lived though it. After decades of silence, she explains, they are undergoing “a quiet awakening” about their identity and family histories, as well as the ways in which Britain’s colonial past is recounted in history books and taught in schools.
The most moving story concerned Sparsh, a young man who, against the advice of his family, returned to the village where, during the tumult that followed partition, his Hindu grandfather was sheltered by a Muslim neighbor from a mob of raiding tribesmen. What followed was the stuff of fiction and film, a journey to a remote village in Pakistan and an emotional meeting with the grandson of the elder who saved his grandfather’s life from him.
“Empire’s legacy is a live issue,” Puri says, and all three stories attest to an ongoing sense of restlessness that all three of these young people feel about their dual heritage and the complex, often hidden history that underpins it.
Out of Afghanistan, a three-part Sky News podcast presented by Stuart Ramsay, brought the dilemma of displacement into stark focus. After the introductory segment relating the horrors of the sudden and chaotic US withdrawal and the Taliban’s swift takeover, it became that rare thing; a quiet, reflective look at the trauma faced by Afghan refugee families for whom Britain is a disspiritingly alien place.
Ramsay mostly let the families he followed speak for themselves, and their mixture of confusion, loss, humility and gratitude was intensely moving. “I am happy,” a man called Ali said quietly. “At least I am alive. I have my family.” Everything else in his life, though, was freighted with an uncertainty that was all too palpable.