Tag: Philip Larkin

‘You’ve Done It Again, Lewis!’: On the Enduring Worth of ‘Inspector Morse’

 

There are, it seems, about a million British detective shows on offer to American audiences (about a million to the power of ten when you add in all the other European sleuthing nationalities), from heart-pumping “Luther” to the more sedate “Ms. Marple’s Mysteries.” Having grown up without cable and had 90 percent of my television-viewing experiences before high school courtesy of WGBH, I have a definite familiarity with the full range of British television offerings (“Vicar of Dibley,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” and “Waiting for God” were all household favorites), but age prevented me from ever making the acquaintance of “Inspector Morse.”

It took until halfway through high school, when I had, in a rare coup d’état, actually managed to get hold of the solitary television clicker, to see the Inspector on Netflix and my mother in no uncertain terms demanded that he disappear after half an hour. However, I was hooked. Even within the diverse range of detective dramas, Morse is a quite singular property, elaborate plotted, skillfully filmed, chock-full of more obscure references than an Umberto Eco novel, and poignant without being sappy or sentimental. A genius product of pop culture. 

The titular Inspector is himself a bit of a departure from the typical flock of Brit detectives; an aging middle-class Englishman with an Oxford education, an accent that could only have come of childhood elocution lessons, and an equal love for real ale and Wagner. John Thaw’s piercing cornflower eyes and reserved expressiveness (perhaps a contradiction in terms, but entirely appropriate when one watches him balance the manners of an Englishman “of a certain age” with his innately virulent emotions) lend an odd sort of beauty to a character who is flawed both in body and soul. His eyes are most often crinkled in a decidedly contemptuous expression and, while he is as brilliant and sensitive as the brief background suggests, he is equally capable of cruelty and vanity. Along for the ride is his much more centered DS, Robbie Lewis, a cheerful Northerner with two kids, a wife, and every day worries.

Turbulence, CDG, and Valentine’s Day

 

Two years ago, I had never even seen an airplane in person. When I made the decision to go abroad for university, though, they became a constant part of my life. I’ve run to six different gates in the space of an hour in Dublin, escaped a crowd of protesters with the help of a French military policeman to almost miss my flight at CDG, and set off more metal detectors with 1 pound coins than a Saudi arms dealer at Logan. Despite these, and much more mundane, experiences, I have a little ritual every time that I board an airplane.

Rationally, I know that air travel is quite safe, and am by no means a nervous flier. I’m perfectly happy to peruse my Bernard Lewis book, or allow a 6’3″, 250-pound Swedish man fall asleep in my lap, in peace. But life is hardly predictable, as dinner in Paris after a lifetime of living hours from any skyscraper testifies. So, each time I’ve settled down into my seat, I take a picture out of the nearest window, and send the same text to my friend:

“Taking off in a few minutes. The pilot says there may be quite a bit of turbulence.

Philip Larkin: A Voice for Our Day and Time

 

Of all of the things one could accuse Philip Larkin of, rightly and wrongly, being a philosophical conservative or a Christian poet would hardly make the list. While he displayed certain instinctively right-wing attitudes and was by all accounts an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Larkin hardly fleshed out a grand theory of conservative being or thought, and his pronouncements on religion certainly place him very far from any church. Yet, one of his lesser-known poems “Vers de Société,” is both an exploration of the decay of traditional society transposing itself upon the life of one man, and of the tragic almost-Christian, a thinly veiled autobiographical narrative.

Framed within an unnamed narrator’s thoughts on, and correspondence about, a party invitation, “Vers de Société” encapsulates in remarkably few words the conservative critique of modernity. The narrator reflects pensively upon all of the time that he has already wasted at parties that he knows will be quite similar to this one, conversing about little because his interlocutors know nothing beyond the present day; his time would be much better “repaid/Under a lamp, hearing the noise of wind.” However much he wishes to engage in study, to use his precious free time in pursuit of the wisdom of ancestors, he knows very well that “All solitude is selfish” in the view of modern society.

His only way to express acceptable piety is to be seen, because these social gatherings have replaced the little platoons, like an organized faith community, that would have been the center of life fifty or a hundred years before. But God has fled and real mystics, men who probe, as the poet does, at the open wounds of life, are unwelcome as reminders of some tradition greater than glossy magazines and vapid calls for equality. The poem, on this plane, is transformed into a stunning indictment of modern society, content to act without God or precedent, and comfortable only insofar as reflection is far away. Inextricably linked with this thread of the poem is a tragic vision of the near-Christian.

Member Post

 

Last year, Ricochet. This year, the world. Folks, here’s my first series of essays for The imaginative conservative, the website-magazine of St. John’s college. The poet’s Philip Larkin & the poem’s Annus mirabilis. This was collected in a small volume called High windows, the title poem of which is strikingly similar, but too vulgar for polite society. […]

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