Thursday, March 20, 2014

the best bums

I don't know about you, but the internet often makes me think about Philip Larkin. Or maybe it's the other way around. It is in so many ways the opposite of the 20th-century world his poetry described, the world he both used and felt victimized by, with its heavily observed restrictions
and middle-class conventions. Except of course, that by the time he died in 1985, the world had changed many times over already, and he was never quite the hapless chump his public image fashioned. But still. The internet: what would he have thought about any porn in the world available at your fingertips whenever you wanted it? Not just No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that, or having to hide / What you think of the priest, but -- no trips to London for the girly rags in the desk drawer at Hull either.

The other day there was a hashtag on Twitter about adding "up your bum" to a movie title that made me think about how Larkin and Kingsley Amis closed their letters to each other. Their valedictions almost always ended with the word "bum, " added to an inspired collection of nonsensical, pointed, political, literary, and deprecating phrases. A kind of hashtag in a way.

Regarding the origin of the Bums, Amis told Anthony Thwaite, editor of Larkin's poems and letters:
The bum thing started with a letter or card from P. in the 1940s I should guess. At the end he wrote Stumble bum Philip in place of All the best etc. A stumble bum, I found later, is US slang for a drunken tramp. I didn't know that then, took it just for a v. mild impropriety and signed off my next Crumble bum Kingsley [6/8/46]. One or two variations followed, then I did a bit of pioneering with something based on the pre-Raphaelite biography stuff I was then doing research into at Oxford, and wrote something like D.G. Rossetti was about five foot eight inches in height, with a pair of black moustaches that contrasted sharply with his rather pale bum. P. took up the idea, though in letters that followed he tended to go on going for simple ones like Electricity bill bum and one I remember, C.H. Sisson bum. I rather went in for the rambling ones. His last letter to me, which he dictated as you know, apologised for the absence of the usual valediction.
The main thing about Amis-Larkin Bums is that they, like the letters themselves, are funny; powered by what Martin Amis called his father's "great engine of comedy" (I didn't much like Experience, but that phrase has stuck with me). They're really funny (more so in context, of course), especially when skewering the blather of literary criticism, the depressing phraseology of the medical establishment, the ignominious aspects of aging, or making fun of themselves. When they're taking the piss. They are also sometimes miserably reflective of all the things that make you squirm about these guys: xenophobic, racist, depressed, reactionary, sexist.

(Liking Philip Larkin's poetry is one of the more constantly educating experiences in life, because you are never left alone to enjoy his work in ignorance; who-he-really-was is right up front at this point [although I haven't been able to read the Monica Jones letters yet; just can't do it]. You don't get to separate the art from the person -- or maybe you always have to; you always have to reconcile, to whatever end you choose, the man who wrote "An Arundle Tomb" with "An Arundle Tomb." I'm not sure this is a bad thing to have to think about. At the very least you are a little less surprised than some when you find out a piece of beautiful art was made by an uncomfortable person, which happens all the time, humans beings being what they are [human].)

Collecting the Bums might be just the kind of joyless cataloguing a unimaginative biographer, a Jake Balokowsky, would take on; a hack exercise that makes something funny unfunny via overanalysis and decontextualization. But I felt like doing it. I wanted to see the Bums lined up. Which is a very internet-era thing to do: making a collection of like items and putting them in a case, just because you can. Also just because I can, and to contradict myself: I left out some of both Amis's and Larkin's Thatcher- and otherwise politically-themed Bums from the end of Larkin's life. I just didn't have the heart for them. They feel more crankily reactionary than funny.

You will see there is a giant gap from 1947 to 1967, which is where no letters from Larkin to Amis survive, although there are bizillions from Amis (there are a lot more from Amis, period). I decided to leave those out for the moment, although that means we miss the Lucky Jim years as well as such elegant closings as "Many wept for joy to see the Queen standing at last on her bum" (5/19/54). You will also see that very early Bums show Amis's and Larkin's love of fucking around with the long S.

KA to PL, 6/19/46
Hungry bum.
kingsley gleet, an vndertaking tape∫try-weauer
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/24/46
Stendhal bum.
GLUBITIO . . . a collap∫'d affirmer
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/1/46
Kingdom bum.
a di∫pa∫sion'd politician
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/15/46
Splendid bum,
a di∫plea∫'d ma∫ter of hor∫e,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 7/17/46
Handel bum
Philip
a mea∫ur'd manufacturer

KA to PL, 7/30/46
Belgrade bum,
a di∫franchy∫'d mu∫ick pupill
kingsley

KA to PL, 9/5/46
Senex bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/7/46
shiftless bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/16/46
Smelly bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/24/46
Bramble bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 9/25/46
Shadrach bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/30/46
handsome bum
Philip
a be∫mirch'd bearer

KA to PL, 10/8/46
Sauterne bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/15/46
Spendthrift bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/24/46
Random bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 11/7/46
Fandango bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/2/46
Tambourine bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/6/46
vibraharp bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/13/46
shellback bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/9/47
Snodgrass bum,
KINGSLEY

KA to PL, 1/30/47
Byrhtnoth bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/6/47
Pharnabazus bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/24/47
Haemoglobin bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 2/26/47
Kesselring bum
Philip

KA to PL, 3/20/47
Pardon bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/24/47
Osmosis bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/26/47
Tip-toe bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/30/47
Innigkeit bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/5/47
Epipsychidion bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/21/67
Darling have you rung the accountants about your bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/3/67
Oh Larkin the Development Committee has been discussing your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 6/16/47
School organization, discipline etc. bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/31/47
Isn't it rather lonely for you up there? What do you do all day bum,
Kingsley

- - - - - -

KA to PL, 4/20/68
To cure your gut-trouble you'll have to cut down on bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/19/69
When she takes her seat in the House, Miss Devlin will bring a breath of fresh bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/11/69
Confrontation bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/30/70
Anthology of socialist bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/6/70
Max Roach bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/14/70
Crow bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/72
Stockhausen bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/29/74
Cash on the table bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/7/72
Events of the last 48 hours in Vietnam highlight the weakness of the President's bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 3/29/73
Adrian Henri bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/73
Stockhausen bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/29/74
Cash on the table bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/28/74
Amis's world lacks among other things the inner dimension of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 7/31/74
Present conditions bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 4/13/76
Oh Larkin I'm afraid we're going to suspend your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 6/11/76
Your blood-pressure's rather high, Mr. Amis; I'm afraid you'll have to cut down on bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/18/76
Fight for the Right to Bum
Philip

KA to PL, 7/5/76
Hurry up please it's bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/11/76
Mr. Amis seems undecided whether he has written a thriller or a work of serious bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/7/76
one man one bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/15/77
I am/am not registered for bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/11/77
Eurocommunism bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 8/28/77
Our text of the poem differs from the one in your bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 10/24/77
Geoffrey Grigson bum, (Jill bum)
Philip

KA to PL, 10/28/77
Between Mr. Scott and myself there has never been the slightest question of bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 8/1/78
Margaret Thatcher is noted for her head-girl's bum
Philip

KA to PL, 4/24/78
Princess Margaret should reconsider her bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/22/78
Cuban penetration into the bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/19/78
Professor of Poetry in the University of bum
Philip

KA to PL, 2/6/79
The prime minister promised to stick to his bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 2/19/79
A net increase of earnings of 20% across the bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 3/3/79
A series of six programmes by Seamus bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 3/31/79
Oh Larkin, I've been looking into your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 9/18/79
The Conservatives are traditionally the party of bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 9/18/79
Afraid the left ear's going the way of the right bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 9/23/79
The Pope's visit would provide an excellent opportunity for the British Government to renew overtures for bum,
Philip

PL to KA, 10/28/79
Penelope Fitzgerald's prize-winning bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 12/4/79
Nuclear reactors are a potential source of frightening bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/9/80
I'll just whip this molar out and then start work on your bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 4/26/80
Dear Mr. Larkin, I have been studying your bum,
P

KA to PL, 9/8/80
Will someone please explain why Polish strikers are heroes but British strikers are bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/5/80
Anthony Burgess's gusto and exuberance springs from his brilliant bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 1/14/81
Mortgage interest rate bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 1/16/81
The Arvon Poetry Competition shows the natural aptitude of the ordinary reader for bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 6/9/81
Attractive Georgian residence standing on its own bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/24/81
My client is of course entitled to half the total proceeds of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/81
At your age you really must go easy on the bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 1/3/82
The Librarian has got to streamline his bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 2/15/82
I bequeath unto my Literary Executors all my bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 5/12/82
It is not the BBC's role just to echo the Government's bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 6/26/82
Man that is born of woman hath but a short ti
                                                                                   time to bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 8/3/82
Any undue strain on that leg and you'll be back to square bum
Kingsley

KA to PL, 11/11/82
Of course you realize being even as little as half a stone overweight renders you measurably more liable to bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 11/21/82
I (signature) agree to purchase the above-mentioned bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 3/9/83
I want my children to grow up in a world of bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 12/5/83
You cannot simply walk into bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/18/84
Mrs. Thatcher is showing a disquieting penchant for bum
Kingsley

PL to KA, 8/9/84
Smoking can damage your bum,
Philip

KA to PL, 12/18/84
Implicit recital of agonised bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 4/2/85
We shall have to arrange to bridge your bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 6/18/85
The VENDOR hereby indemnifies the PURCHASER against all bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 9/24/85
John Fowles's uncanny feeling for bum,
Kingsley

KA to PL, 10/1/85
It is sad to see a novelist of Mr. Amis's repute stooping to bum,
Kingsley

PL to KA, 10/4/85
Mrs. Thatcher must reconsider her bum.
Philip

KA to PL, 11/23/85
Of all the 30s writers Spender showed the keenest sense of bum
Kingsley

2"In his contribution to Larkin at Fifty Amis had voiced a slight demur about what he took to be Larkin's occasional 'wilful verbal eccentricity' in the use of a particular word." (From Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite)

Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Hilly Amis in London, 1958

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