Larkin25 / BBC Today and The Times feature Larkin25
As Larkin25 launches 25 weeks of lectures, music and cultural events to celebrate the life and work of ‘Britain’s favourite poet’ Philip Larkin, The Times reports on the commemorations in Larkin’s home town of Hull:
Head through the women’s clothes section, past the ruffle-trim swimsuits and the tie-front joggers. Turn right at the knot-neck tops and next to the lift, just over the fire extinguisher, is a framed copy of the poem Philip Larkin wrote about this very Marks & Spencer store.
It’s in Hull, where Larkin, patron saint of provincial pathos, spent most of his working life as university librarian. The city is marking this year’s 25th anniversary of his death in fine style with the Larkin 25 festival, which will take in his writings, cartoons, letters, photographs and an exhibition including his duffel coat and long johns. Nothing is sacred.
One big attraction will be a new Larkin Trail around places he knew, complete with an MP3 of him reading his poems about them. Stand in M&S and hear him intoning his 1961 thoughts on this “large cool store” selling “Bri-Nylon Baby-Dolls and Shorties”. The voice of a man who wore a fob watch. The trail will be launched in the autumn, but Jean Hartley, one of the poet’s closest Hull friends, is giving me a preview of some of the highlights. In 1955 Hartley published The Less Deceived, which brought Larkin to prominence, and she has written her own guide to Larkin’s Hull. “Shall we start with the cemetery?” she says. Where better for a poet so obsessed by mortality?
He isn’t actually buried in Spring Bank Cemetery (he’s at nearby Cottingham, near the graves of two of his lovers), but he called it “the most beautiful spot in Hull”. As we pick our careful way past ivy-draped gravestones, Hartley reflects on Larkin’s relationship with the city. “It was an enormously inspiring place for him,” she says. “It was a manageable size. And he liked the provinces and living on the edge of things.”
And overlooking things. He was at his happiest and most creative at Pearson Park, a smart residential enclave where he lived in an attic flat for 18 years. Through a wrought-iron gate and under a tunnel of honeysuckle and Russian vine, the front door opens to reveal Thomas Mills, a man with a bushy white beard and firm opinions. He bought the house after Larkin left and is well used to the poet’s fans turning up to gawp.
“They come in coachloads,” he says. “And they can be very intense about it. One or two couples went into a sort of trance when they went upstairs and looked out of his window.” Mills doesn’t allow literary sightseers into the flat these days, but recalls that young male students were always keen to rent it. There was apparently no shortage of female students eager to spend the night in Larkin’s former bedroom.
“He’s not a poet who appeals much to me,” he adds. “That poem where he says . . .” and he quotes the notorious first line of This Be The Verse (“They f*** you up, your mum and dad”). “He didn’t need to put it like that,” he says.
Hartley offers a bit of lit crit. “I think what Larkin was saying is that you inherit things from your parents,” she says. Mills is unconvinced: “He could have found a better way of putting it.”
On we go, talking about a favourite Larkin restaurant on the trail, now Thai, but once Chinese and supremely exotic when fish and chips was the norm for eating out in the city. What would he have ordered? “Probably the three-course,” Hartley says. “Look, that’s the postbox where he used to post his letters.”
Hull has changed radically since Larkin’s day. It’s rejuvenated, with a marina, an inviting “old town” area, superb museums and galleries, England’s biggest parish church and some characterful pubs, including the dark-panelled White Hart, where Larkin gave talks to the Hull Jazz Record Society.
Larkinites will want to stay at the comfortable Royal Hotel, the old station hotel, where the poet would meet friends in the pillared lounge. Refurbishment has banished the Friday night atmosphere he so precisely dissected, when silence was “laid like carpet”. Stewart Rushton, the general manager, says: “I think he was trying to convey that there wasn’t much going on in Hull when the business people had left. It’s a much more seven-days-a-week city now.”
From the dining room you can watch comings and goings on the station, where a statue of Larkin, by Martin Jennings, will be unveiled in December. Jennings’s much-admired statue of Larkin’s friend Sir John Betjeman gazes skywards at St Pancras station in London. Larkin will be shown hurrying to catch the train whose journey from Hull he describes in The Whitsun Weddings.
Before I retrace part of it, speeding beside the silver-shimmering Humber, Hartley puts the Larkin-Hull relationship into context: “Hull had more impact on him than he had on Hull. He had an international reputation, but he was still anonymous here. He wanted to be a private person and keep his poetry and his life separate. And he was quite abashed that This Be the Verse became so well known. He said: ‘It will probably be my epitaph. I can imagine it being sung by a thousand Girl Guides in the Albert Hall.'”
For more information, visit www.larkin25.co.uk