The folkways of food are often unfathomable. What appears toothsome to one looks ghastly to another. Even generosity or meanness, whether by host or guest, is relative. I would take it as a compliment if my guests over-indulged in my onion sauce. Anthony Powell, in his Journals 1982-1986 (1995), is drily disapproving. Or perhaps he merely relishes the comedy of Philip Larkin and his girlfriend, Monica Jones, lapping up the condiments. For readers, the comedy is heightened when we recall the context. Powell recorded the onion sauce episode in his journal on the day of Larkin’s death, Dec. 2, 1985. Powell declines press interviews about his relations with the poet but writes in the privacy of his journal that his meetings with Larkin had always been “pleasant” and they often exchanged letters.
The onion sauce scandal occurred when Larkin and Jones were on a “Dorset holiday (`doing’ the Thomas Hardy country, I think).” They visited Powell and his wife, Lady Violet Packenham, at The Chantry, the grey limestone mansion in the West Country where the Powells had lived since 1952. Larkin, he says, “took one of his interval-shutter photographs, in which he himself returns to be included in group. Some kind of power or narcissistic element perhaps coming into, as he always does this.” One wonders if that was the case with this splendid photograph of Powell, Kingsley Amis, Larkin and Amis’ then-wife, Hilary Amis Kilmarnock. By now, Powell is working up a good head of bitchiness – first the onion sauce, then the photograph, and then this:
“Larkin undoubtedly imposed himself on his own Oxford generation, Kingsley Amis et al. [Here it comes:] One can see why, without actually feeling any `magic’ oneself. Larkin was obviously extremely intelligent, a good poet, if essentially not on a very extensive scale [says the author of the twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, much admired by Larkin] tho’ output is on the whole beside the point, lots of good poets writing reams of rubbish, some writing little, always good stuff [even the grammar is equivocal].”
Powell lands on the less bitchy regions of terra firma here: “I hear The Times gave a grudging obit, several of these likely, as Larkin was a Tory (the popular press would say `Young Fogey,’ anyone on the Right under eighty, in an effort of disparagement), the real `Establishment’ being on the Left, a kind of half-baked semi-Marxism, with which journalism and media are soaked.”
Powell seems to be tallying a sort of balance sheet of virtues and defects in Larkin the man and poet, until the journal entry’s conclusion: “There was something of a dyed-in-the-wool provincialism about Larkin that always suggested a kind of resentment of the modern world. He was perhaps not really a very nice chap is one’s final conclusion, but a good if limited poet.”
Larkin, of course, not exactly a slouch when it came to bitchiness and back-stabbing, had his revenge. In the third volume of his Journal (1997), Powell reports reading Larkin’s just-published Selected Letters (1992), seven years after the poet’s death. In the Sept. 17 entry he writes: “The Larkin Letters are rude to almost everybody, except perhaps [historian, poet] Bob Conquest. Larkin describes me as a `creep,’ and `horse-faced dwarf,’ needing `a kick in the balls for being too pleased with himself.’ [And now, the return of the onion sauce:] He had asked himself to luncheon here with his enigmatic long-time girlfriend Monica Jones (no Helen of Troy) some years ago (when in the neighbourhood), and the two of them eating more onion sauce than V[iolet] and I have ever seen two people eat, completely cleaning out the dish. In the year of his death Larkin sent `affectionate wishes to you both.’ I was surprised how little I minded Larkin’s offensive remarks.”
I concur, and both Larkin and Powell remain among my favorite twentieth-century English writers.