The last letter Philip Larkin wrote was to Kingsley Amis on 21 November 1985. He was too ill to hold the pen himself and dictated it to be typed and signed by his secretary at the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull. He told Amis he was going into hospital that day for more tests – ‘only tests, but of course they are looking for something, and I bloody well hope they don’t find it.’ Still, he tried not to sound too downcast. ‘Don’t get unduly alarmed; the doctors, as always, are cheerful and light-hearted, but I don’t really trust them anymore.’ Some uncharacteristically chirpy chit-chat followed – ‘Congratulations on the novel … I laughed at your House of Commons anecdote’ – and a bit of jazz talk, but the letter ends on a sombre note. For decades Larkin had signed off his letters to Amis with the same childish but satisfying joke, inserting the word ‘bum’ into an otherwise pompous phrase (‘The Tories may lose the election owing to Mrs Thatcher’s bum,’ ‘Professor of Poetry in the University of bum’ etc). This time, either too embarrassed or too tired to ask his secretary to type it, he ended instead: ‘You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction, Yours ever, Philip.’ Eleven days later he was dead.
In fact, Larkin’s doctors had found what they were looking for months earlier. During the summer, after an operation on his oesophagus, they had discovered inoperable cancer. The surgeon told his companion, Monica Jones, who, according to Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin, decided to keep the news to herself. She was worried about the effect of a terminal diagnosis on a man who had often expressed his terror of dying. So Larkin’s doctors kept up a cheerful front and told him that they were still investigating, while the disease took its toll. Whether he believed what he was told is open to question, but he did his best to keep up his side of the deception. After falling downstairs that September, he wrote to Judy Egerton that although no bones were broken ‘my chief worry is a “funny feeling in my throat” which lasted about a week, and which of course I fear the worst about. It makes me very bad company.’ That said, ‘my doctors are quite happy about me (they don’t know about the throat or falling downstairs).’ This dance of deceit continued to the end. When he was taken to hospital for the last time, he was sedated to spare him a confrontation with the truth. ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged,’ his friend Michael Bowen remembered, ‘he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’
Larkin’s letters are full of references to his fear of death, some humorous, some grimly foreboding. In November 1982 he wrote to Motion about a dinner held for Thatcher by the historian Hugh Thomas and attended by writers he thought she might admire (Larkin, Isaiah Berlin, V.S. Pritchett, Mario Vargas Llosa and Anthony Powell, among others), which Larkin had found tough going. ‘The Thatcher dinner was pretty grisly. Even now I shudder and moan involuntarily. M says: “Is it death again, or Mrs Thatcher?”’ At the start of the decade, he’d written to Amis: ‘How are you, old cock sparrow? If like me, then enduring vertiginous waves of realisation every so often i.e. about every three hours when not drunk that during this decade we i.e. MEEEE are quite likely to be dead.’ But Larkin’s most direct engagement with his fear of dying can be found in a letter he wrote to my father, W.G. Runciman, in November 1978, following the publication of his poem ‘Aubade’, which begins:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
My father, who was then in his mid-forties, suffered from the same intense fear of death. He would sometimes talk of waking in the night gripped with a sense of utter terror at what was to come. After ‘Aubade’ appeared, he discussed this fear with his friend Martin Roth, a psychiatrist and fellow academic, who tried to persuade him it was a treatable neurosis rather than a reasonable response to inevitable extinction. My father wrote to Larkin, whom he admired but did not know personally, about Roth’s opinion, conveying his own scepticism. ‘Roth asked whether I seriously wished to come for a clinical consultation, to which I replied, rather like Yossarian in Catch-22, that the condition can hardly be treated as paranoia when he himself agrees that whoever is up there is indeed going to dispose of us all quite soon.’
‘It is hard to say whether fear of death is a neurotic condition,’ Larkin responded. ‘My first impulse is to say that it is simply seeing things clearly, and it’s the rest of the world who ought to visit Sir Martin Roth; or that it’s simply being more sensitive, like worrying about cruelty to animals (I do that too).’ He was, however, open to the idea that it might be a temporary state of mind. ‘A lady of seventy wrote to me about the poem “When I was fifty I felt as you do; now I don’t”. So perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the thought that when death is really near, it won’t worry us. We shall become as thick-skinned as everyone else.’ He completely resisted the idea that worrying oneself to death about dying was selfish and that the sufferer should simply get a grip. ‘Nothing really expunges the terror: it remains a sort of Bluebeard’s chamber in the mind, something one is always afraid of – and this is bad for one. It certainly doesn’t feel like egocentricity!’ My father responded to the point about the ‘lady of seventy’, saying ‘I have never known a woman of any age who could claim really to have experienced what you describe, though I know one or two elderly men who agree that they did when younger but no longer do.’ ‘If there are consistent differences by age and sex,’ he concluded, ‘then perhaps the biologists can offer explanation even if not comfort.’
My father did not write to Larkin again, but he continued the argument with Roth by letter for the best part of a year. Roth told him that the symptoms Larkin described – ‘insomnia with early morning waking and dependence on alcohol’ – were profoundly unhealthy. He compared the fear of death to the phobia other people have about going to the dentist. ‘Virtually no one is entirely free from fear of the dentist,’ Roth wrote, ‘but most individuals are able to overcome it to an extent that enables them to submit to regular examinations … But there is a minority whose terror is such that, unaided by appropriate psychological treatment, they allow all their teeth to decay and fall out.’ Why would someone suffering as much as Larkin resist professional help? ‘This is no way to live or die. Nor is it anything to do with “seeing things clearly”. If it is not neurosis or emotional illness, what is it? Surely not mental health.’ But my father was having none of it. ‘You agree that there is indeed something to be frightened of,’ he told Roth,
and therefore faced with as much resignation and composure as one can muster. Larkin’s image of a Bluebeard’s chamber accordingly seems to me very apt. If he is driven to peer into it in the small hours more often than other people, then perhaps you would be right to help him not to. But if he doesn’t thank you for your pains, it is presumably up to him.
Though they never met, my father continued to feel close to Larkin, and took me – then aged eighteen – to his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in February 1986. The event was open to the public, and we sat at the back along with hundreds of other ‘poetry-lovers’, as Larkin would no doubt have hated to hear us called (it probably wasn’t true of plenty of those there, including me, who didn’t much like poetry in general, just Larkin’s). It was a memorable occasion, with a jazz sextet playing Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke and a stentorian reading from Ecclesiastes by Ted Hughes. Jill Balcon read a selection of Larkin’s verse, including ‘Church Going’. I couldn’t recall whether any mention was made of Larkin’s fear of death and his certainty that it meant oblivion, but the order of service, available in the abbey’s online archive, makes clear that it was. At the start of the service the sub-dean quoted from ‘Aubade’:
We give thanks for his intellectual integrity which would not allow him to accept the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke and never more movingly than in the lines:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.
Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as those who do, with the assurance that, his fears dispelled, he now shares our rejoicing in eternal life, the gift of that Risen Lord who here on earth he did not yet know.
That’s one way to do it. In a valedictory poem published in the LRB (6 February 1986), Clive James made a similar point, though less unctuously:
A bedside manner in your graveyard tone
Suggests that at the last we aren’t alone.
You wouldn’t have agreed, of course. You said
Without equivocation that life ends
With him who lived it definitely dead
And buried, after which event he tends
To spend a good deal less time with his friends.
But you aren’t here to argue. Where you are
By now is anybody’s guess but yours.
My father, a lifelong atheist who never wavered in his conviction that there was nothing next, died in December aged 86, after a long illness. He was diagnosed with a slowly fatal heart condition a few years ago, but outlived the prognosis he was given then. In April he survived Covid-19. At the end, when he had stopped eating and his GP gave him a couple of days to live, he clung on tenaciously for two weeks. Perhaps his fear of dying had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem afraid. Indeed, in his later years he conformed to the suggestion in his exchange with Larkin that age diminishes and perhaps even extinguishes the terror. I can’t remember him mentioning it after about the age of seventy. Unlike Larkin’s end, my father’s final months were relatively peaceful. He was calm and uncomplaining throughout. He died at home. I happened to be with him at the end. After a day when he had found it hard to breathe, he became peaceful again towards midnight and slept. I fell asleep too and twenty minutes later was woken by the fact that the room had become completely silent and still. I have never been present before when someone has died. I was deeply struck by a feeling that the step from the half-life my father had been leading to no life at all was less significant than the earlier step from his full life to his bedbound one. Dying did not seem something to be afraid of. As we – my mother, my younger sister and I – sat up in the small hours waiting for the funeral home to take his body, we drank whisky in his honour and found ourselves reading Larkin’s letter, which he had meticulously filed among his correspondence. It was oddly comforting if not exactly consoling. But we decided against reading ‘Aubade’, which he had filed alongside it.