Of kindness, hogged words and hedging WhatsApps for the hereafter



Of kindness, hogged words and hedging WhatsApps for the hereafter

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times
Image: 123RF/Ondrej Prosicky

Poet Philip Larkin, probably still best known (which annoyed the great writer intensely while he was alive) for his delightfully rude summation of human progress, This Be The Verse, has been back in the news of late.

Never mind that he died in 1985, the lyrical librarian from Hull continues to fascinate and titillate. Yesterday on Times Select, the discerning person who chooses interesting oddments (I’m talking about you, Robin) published a piece by Rupert Christiansen on the slightly scandalous letters between Larkin and one of his mistresses, which are about to be unleashed upon the poetry-loving public.

Serendipitously – or perhaps merely coincidentally – yesterday I wrote about poetry (and Asterix books) as the best way to teach children an affinity for the mesmerising rhythm of gainfully employed language. 

This Be The Verse is a wonderful example of catchy doggerel, by the way, but only if you don’t mind your kids being exposed to a bit of sweariness and cynicism.

Getting back to yesterday, while reading Christiansen’s erudite analysis of Larkin’s loves and letters, two things occurred to me.

First, I was reminded of a column I wrote four years ago that attempted to explain why I love the word “hedgehog” so much. At the time, a search of the Sunday Times archive revealed that I’d referred to hedgehogs more than two dozen times in the space of four years (I fear it is now a lot more).

I tried to exonerate myself with the defence that few words are as satisfying as “hedgehog”. But I also happened to be reading a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth, who asserted that Larkin actively avoided the abuse and overuse of words.

Here’s how Booth put it: “A startlingly large number of words occur in a single poem only ... Larkin, it seems, waits for the best time to employ each word, gives it the most memorable context he can contrive and then never uses it again.”

Oh, the awe and envy I felt when I read that.

We should prepare ourselves for postmortem ambush by data diggers who mine the cyber-archives for embarrassing nuggets of naughtiness.

Larkin mentioned hedgehogs in just one poem out of thousands. In The Mower, an unfortunate hedgehog is found “jammed up against the blades”. 

The poet mourns: 

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once

Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world 

Unmendably. Burial was no help.

The closing words of this poem are particularly beautiful and eternally relevant: 

We should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

This brings me to my second point. If the private correspondence of a bespectacled small-town librarian (who happened also to be a colossus in the world of words) continues to provide fodder for gossip mills 35 years after his death, should the rest of us not give some thought to what will survive of us in the social-media hereafter?

In the unlikely event that I or any of my frequently contacted friends becomes famous (actually, a few of them might) we should prepare ourselves for postmortem ambush by data diggers who mine the cyber-archives for embarrassing nuggets of naughtiness.

To head this off at the pass (I’m talking to you, Mark Zuckerberg) here are four compromising exchanges that my friends most certainly would not want published. Names have been changed to protect the private.


ME: I’m struggling to finish ‘The Museum of Broken Promises’.

BOOK-LOVING FRIEND: Quit while you’re ahead. By the way, that appalling pale man of hers died.

ME: I’m glad the pale man died. I hope it was as slow and painful as the book.


TRUMP-LOATHING FRIEND: Can’t wait for him to get Covid so we can pour disinfectant down his throat and stick a torch up his butt.

ME: Luckily he has an underlying condition – twatness.

TRUMP-LOATHING FRIEND: He’s the greatest at having twatness. No one is more twatty than him.

ME: He’s a 1,000-kilotwatt twat.


ME (responding to a forwarded link to a Marina Hyde column): One day when I grow up I want to learn to write like that.

MARINA HYDE-LOVING FRIEND: You probably just need the right subject.

ME: Hedgehogs, maybe.


ME: We should censor our correspondence. One day when you’re a world-famous poet someone might publish our WhatsApps.


Having laid bare these intimacies, I beg gentle readers not to judge us too harshly. As Larkin said: we should be kind, while there is still time.

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