“The door burst open and in marched Philip Larkin. I realized afterwards that somebody on the Library staff had been asked to telephone the bookshop with a warning that Larkin was on the warpath. The rest of the staff hid conspiratorially in the back office and my perceived function was to stand out there and take the flak.”Andy Leggett (French, 1964)
This year marks the year that poet Philip Larkin would have turned 100. The writer of “The Whitsun Weddings” famously spent thirty years as librarian at the University of Hull, and to celebrate his centenary, we’ve invited alumni to share their memories of encounters with Larkin or his poetry.
In this article, originally published in Just Jazz magazine (Issue 239, March 2018), Andy Leggett talks about his relationship with Philip Larkin during his time working as ‘trainee manager’ of the on campus bookshop.
By the end of June 1964 I was job-hunting, having proudly secured my Upper Second Class BA in French at Hull University. Hours spent in tutorials with the likes of Professor Garnet Rees and the redoubtable Paul Ginestier should have prepared me for an academic life. The heart sank at this prospect, however.
I’d learned to fly Chipmunks with the University Air Squadron and had been offered a commission by the RAF, but deteriorating eyesight would, frustratingly, have kept me out of the air. I’d also been playing guitar, banjo and clarinet with student jazz bands in the University and the Hull Art College, so was keen to stay in Hull where life was pleasant. Going home to Kent would have felt like failure.
The University Bookshop, run by A Brown and Sons Ltd, had meanwhile fallen foul of Philip Larkin the University Librarian, who was scornful of the limited selection of books available to students. He had recommended that the shop should employ a graduate of the University with some appreciation of what ought to be set forth for all those hungry young minds.
So when I appeared before the University Careers Officer, he somewhat hesitantly asked if I’d like to take up this challenge. I knew Larkin’s reputation as a poet and as the Daily Telegraph’s jazz critic, and formerly, when playing in the Green Ginger Seven, (our student band), I had harboured a naïve hope that he might turn up one evening at our gig and give us a bit of encouragement. On those other evenings when I’d attended lectures on Airframes, Engines, Meteorology, Navigation and the like at the University Air Squadron’s H.Q. in Pearson Park, there had always been the faint possibility of running into that park’s most celebrated resident. Neither encounter ever happened.
I accepted this job for a six-month trial period, and accordingly presented myself for work in the ramshackle temporary army-hut of a bookshop on the 6th August 1964. (Much of the University was a building-site at the time).
The manager, Mr McKay, was a pleasant, mild-mannered gent, approaching retirement, who reminded me of my maternal grandfather. The air in the back office was fouled up by the exhalations of a chain-smoking, heavily made-up platinum-blonde typist. The real go-ahead driving force in the business was a middle-aged saleswoman whose name I’m ashamed of having forgotten. A couple of younger female shop assistants, one of whom was the manager’s daughter completed the regular staff. On Tuesdays, a cleaning lady inundated the floor and lower tiers of shelving with gallons of water. This was “Mrs Sloppity”.
I’d taken the job with every intention of giving it a go, but even after the first week I sensed that, whatever the intentions of the Management, in the shop itself I was less than one hundred percent welcome. I was never invited to participate in the vital process of cashing up at the end of the day, let alone the end of the week, and felt that my position as “Trainee Manager” was not being taken seriously. As weeks went by I formed the private opinion that the manager’s daughter was really the one being groomed as his successor. I decided not to make an issue of it but to do the job as well as I could, and then find a better situation once the six months were up.
Then it happened. One sunny morning, I found myself alone at the counter. The door burst open and in marched Philip Larkin. I realized afterwards that somebody on the Library staff had been asked to telephone the bookshop with a warning that Larkin was on the warpath. The rest of the staff hid conspiratorially in the back office and my perceived function was to stand out there and take the flak. Seldom was the “rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights” cliché more appropriate. Larkin towered over me and I was treated to the full glare through those famous thick spectacles.
I hastily grabbed a pen and paper as Larkin led me from shelf to shelf, enumerating title after title not specified in the students’ course lists, but essential background reading, as he saw it, for aspiring economists, physicists, biologists, and so on. From my own experience I knew that nearly all of Hull’s students were on as tight a budget as I had been. The thought of buying any books not actually specified as essential reading came a poor second behind the acquisition of such essentials as fags and booze. How could I tell him this? I would have preferred to engage him in conversations about Johnny Dodds or Sidney Bechet.
This scenario unfolded on subsequent occasions, with little variation, and predictable resistance to any additional expenditure from the shop’s manager. I ended by purchasing myself a couple of the books bought in to try and please the French Department. More than anything, I now regret passing up those golden opportunities to buy a copy of The Whitsun Weddings and have it signed by the great man.
I left the bookshop job on the 15th January ’65. In my subsequent career as a technical translator and interpreter I helped to put the Concorde into the air and the Ariane out there beyond it. Later still I spent 17 years in Germany as clarinettist with Rod Mason’s Hot Five, on the way producing my own Sidney Bechet tribute CDs. If I could have had those conversations with Larkin much earlier in his career and much later in my own, how different they might have been!
When Andy sent the piece to Larkin Biographer, Andrew Motion, he received the following response:
“Dear Mr Leggett,
thank you for sending such an interesting letter (I remember feeling more or less as you did, when Philip first loomed over me), and for so generously including those CDs. I greatly look forward to listening to them, and I’m greatful to you for taking such trouble on my behalf.
greetings from Baltimore and all good wishes
This article was reprinted with the kind permission of Just Jazz Magazine. It first appeared in Just Jazz Magazine Issue 239, March 2018