Hull academics are eagerly examining letters written by Philip Larkin – once the university’s librarian. Chris Arnot reports
A charcoal drawing of Philip Larkin hangs on a wall in his former place of employment, the Brynmor Jones library at Hull University. Is there a hint or disapproval behind those impenetrable spectacles? Or would the poet be quietly amused to know that academics are still poring over his prolific output of letters?
“He knew whatever he wrote would be worth reading,” says Professor James Booth, head of English at Hull, who is evidently relishing the prospect of rooting through the latest batch of Larkin letters to emerge from obscurity. About 2,000 were recently deposited at the university’s archive by his niece, Rosemary Parry. “They form probably the last major set, and should help us to gain a fuller picture of the poet,” says archivist Judy Burg.
Booth will use them for his third book on Larkin, one of Palgrave Macmillan’s Literary Lives series, to be published in 2010, on the 25th anniversary of Larkin’s death. What’s more, he is hoping Faber and Faber can be persuaded to publish the letters, once he has had chance to edit them.
In the meantime, the poet’s literary executor, Anthony Thwaite, plans to bring out his own book of correspondence between Larkin and his long-term lover Monica Jones.
Model of Hitler
It is likely there will be more salacious interest in Monica than in Mop, as Larkin called his mother – presumably to rhyme with Pop, his chosen address for his father, Sydney Larkin, Coventry’s city treasurer before and during the second world war. Pop Larkin was a stern, unbending figure whose extreme rightwing politics made his son’s seem liberal by comparison. Larkin senior kept a model of Hitler on his office mantelpiece until 1939.
As an Oxford undergraduate, Larkin – who would later write the much-quoted first line “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad” – was reliant on the treasurer for financial support. One letter, bearing the date November 12 1940, is sent from St John’s College. “Dear Pop,” it begins. “I have just bought this notepaper to conserve my college supply a little. It cost (with envelopes) two and five pence halfpenny. None to be had at Woolworth’s. My money is being spent with alarming rapidity. At present, I have 15 pounds, 15 shillings and sixpence halfpenny: and it is just gone half term … I have been squandering money on books, that’s the trouble …”
Six days later came an altogether more emotional missive, addressed to “Dear family”, and sent to Lichfield, where the Larkins had fled in the wake of the November 14 blitz on Coventry. “First, I was tremendously relieved to know that you were safe,” he writes. “While you have had the bombings, fires, rescue parties and all the rest of the grim trappings of air raids, we up here merely had the unpleasant rumours, the horrific newspaper, and the lack of news …” The letter goes on to recount how he and some old schoolfriends had hitchhiked from Oxford to Coventry on a Sunday morning, to discover that their parents’ homes were still standing amid the devastation.
Despite the best efforts of his beloved Fuhrer’s Luftwaffe, Sydney Larkin himself survived until 1948, his wife Eva until 1977. The year before her death, the now famous poet wrote to her from Hull in May, with characteristic lugubriousness. “Dearest old creature,” his letter greets her. “End of a dull wet Sunday, which follows a dull wet Saturday. I hope tomorrow won’t be a dull wet Monday!” It continues: “I am slowly recovering from my visit to London, and my recording of Desert Island Discs. I didn’t think it went at all well, principally because I was very nervous. If only I could have had a few double gins beforehand.”
The letters between Larkin and his mother between 1956 and her death form the bulk of this collection. He wrote twice a week. “I get the feeling there was an ambiguous relationship between them,” says Booth. “There’s a picture of him leaning over a settee on which she’s sitting, and he looks as though he’d like to strangle her. She was not the easiest woman to love, but he treated her well and considerately. He had a strong sense of duty.”
Some of the letters in the new collection have been seen before. The poet’s biographer, Andrew Motion, acquired a few from Larkin’s sister, Kitty. Motion says Eva Larkin wrote to her son in a “similarly doting, similarly trivial” tone to his own letters. “Of course you ought not to have changed those pants,” she chides in one. “Remember that I thought it very unwise at the time.”
“Andrew maintains that Larkin kept other women at bay through his relationship with his mother,” Booth says. “Certainly he never seems to have been short of women. Psychoanalysing people after they’re dead is so difficult; I’d like to read a lot more before I make up my mind. I’m not on a crusade to undermine what Andrew has said about the man, but I have a feeling that these letters will restore a sense of his fundamental decency.”
Booth, 62, the son of a factory toolmaker, admits that his views on Larkin have changed considerably in the 40 years since he arrived at Hull as a “lefty” young lecturer. “Like a lot of my generation, I had a notion that he was English and minor – a bit like Elgar,” he recalls. “But I bought an LP of The Less Deceived [an early collection] and played it on Sunday afternoons as dusk settled a Larkin-esque mood on my flat. As time went on, I realised that he was one of the four or five greatest poets writing in English in the 20th century.”
Did lecturer and librarian ever meet at Hull? After all, they had things in common, including West Midland backgrounds and firsts from Oxford. The head of English smiles and admits to what he felt at the time – that Larkin would have looked down on him socially. “I’d had enough of class distinction at Oxford,” he says. “But I did receive a letter from him when, in my rather uppity way, I’d refused to pay a library fine. He pointed out that books were stolen more often than we imagined. Only much later did I read that, in his youth, our eminent librarian had stolen one book from a library in Coventry and another from Blackwells in Oxford.”
Perhaps Pop Larkin never responded to those begging letters with enough funds to feed his son’s appetite for literature.