TV review: Talking in bed

Gary Day on poetic sensibilities, the iconic couch of the subconscious and the beauty of mathematics

December 16, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

Philip Larkin was a great admirer of D.H. Lawrence, but differed from his hero by not believing in marriage. Larkin needed more than one relationship to satisfy his needs, and so, as it turned out, did Lawrence. But how many women, exactly, did Larkin require (BBC Four, Philip Larkin and the Third Woman, Tuesday 7 December, 8pm)?

The latest addition to the list is Betty Mackereth, his secretary of 28 years. You can see why they got together. She sounds as misanthropic as Mr Glum of Hull himself. "I didn't like you when I first met you," she said to Andrew Motion, "and I don't like you now." She didn't mean it, of course (well, not completely), any more than Larkin meant his grumblings against humanity, which were really grumblings against himself.

It was while he was writing the poet's biography that Andrew was alerted to the possibility of "a third woman", an expression that makes Betty sound like a female Harry Lime. The other two women in Larkin's life were Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan. Late poems like Morning At Last: There in the Snow provided the clue to this late-flowering love, an experience beautifully captured in We Met at the End of the Party, which has been published in About Larkin, the journal of the Philip Larkin Society, but which deserves a wider audience.

"How did it start?" asked Andrew sweetly. "We were sitting outside in the car when he said 'Aren't you going to invite me in for coffee?'." A line that gives some substance to Larkin's fear that his muse may have deserted him. "What happened next?" Andrew queried innocently. "Oh one thing led to another," chirped Betty. "How did it make you feel?" Andrew wanted to know. "Well, I suppose at the time I was excited," replied Betty, mildly.

Andrew trembled as he unfolded a poem that no one but Betty had seen before. She couldn't see what all the fuss was about. "You must have felt so moved to receive it," said Andrew. Betty supposed it must have cheered her up on a cold morning. Strange to think that a love poem may finally mean more to a poet's readers than to the one who shared his bed. The film almost suggested that what will survive of us is scandal. Almost.

Not all of Larkin's late poems were about being surprised by joy. Love Again is full of writhing jealousy and self-loathing, pinning the speaker's sufferings on "Something to do with violence/A long way back". What more would Larkin have revealed if he had lain on Freud's couch? That he could have sex only if he read Graham Greene (BBC Four, Masterpieces of Vienna: Freud's Couch, Wednesday 8 December, 8pm)? Various talking heads agreed that this item of furniture revolutionised our understanding of the human mind. I looked at our sofa, which will never amount to anything, and sighed deeply.

Freud's couch was halfway between the medical one of consulting rooms and the chaise longue of ladies' boudoirs. Mike Gold's pleasing film followed its journey from Vienna to London. We were encouraged to appreciate the design of the couch, its clean lines and horsehair stuffing, After half an hour, the viewer was convinced that this was no ordinary divan. It was a road into the unconscious, a tool of exorcism and the promise of being understood. Visitors to the Freud museum have been known to throw themselves upon it and weep. All this and more. Yet not a word about it being covered in stains. Freud would have seized on that omission.

Marvellous as his couch was, it does not compare to E=mc2, which was illustrated with a picture of Einstein's hair exploding from his head. Painter Matthew Collings set out to explore this and other formulae in Beautiful Equations (BBC Four, Tuesday 14 December, 9pm). Could beauty be as much a property of mathematics as of art? Yes indeed. An equation has the simplicity, elegance and balance we find in art. Well, some art anyway. Along the way Matthew met some extremely patient scientists. Professor Ruth Gregory's smile remained constant as she repeatedly explained Newton's equation for gravity. She even managed to remain cheerful while an apple refused to fall from the tree until it got the full Equity rate.

Professor Arthur Miller silenced Matthew's objections about the connections between Picasso and Einstein. It helped that he looked like a heavy in Goodfellas. Antimatter is an exotic notion, but, according to Dr Glen Cowan, you can apparently make it in your kitchen, as long as you have a Perspex box, dry ice, alcohol and a radioactive source. Matthew stood entranced. He argued the case for Keats' romantic equivalence of truth and beauty, but Larkin's acerbic remark that truth "is so unattractive I no longer wish to establish it" seems so much more, well, provoking.

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