“I used, and loved the Brynmor Jones Library: his library, my library… The connections continue, as in autumn term 2020, my daughter began at Hull as an undergraduate. My library, her library: The Brynmor Jones Library.”Andrew Barker, Sociology, 1994
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 part one of our Memories of Larkin series we bring together archival material relating to Larkin’s appointment as University Librarian along with some alumni memories of encounters with him in his role as librarian.
In this series of articles we will enjoy many brief encounters with the man; sometimes brushing past him in the street, sometimes falling under his stern gaze, at other times being on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic moment of kindness. In other contributions, such as that of Alan Barker, below, we will not encounter the man at all, but instead it will be his words and his legacy that we are left to contemplate.
I am delighted to start this series with Andrew’s contribution, even though Andrew only started at Hull six years after the death of Philip Larkin. In describing his feelings about his daughter following in his footsteps in the Brynmor Jones Library as a current University of Hull student, Andrew expresses something of the nature of the University and the Library: they are jointly owned, by all of us, and as we hand them down from one generation to the next, we hope for their renewal. But not only that. In the renewal we hope that something of us is also retained, so that the old and the new ‘in this house join, minting new coin’.
Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing more articles with more alumni memories offering us snapshots into the life of a complex and difficult man. Some of those memories are surprisingly positive, others are less positive and some unpleasant, almost a badge of honour for the one on the receiving end of Larkin’s bad temper.
There is no biographical thread that connects these memories, and we will not gain any insight into the life of the man. These are the stories we have told ourselves about Larkin and they contribute in different ways to his myth: at times a legendary poet, at other times a monster, but mostly a shadow glimpsed from the corner of the eye. In many ways these stories are as much about us as they are about him, and it has been a real pleasure reading them.
Aside from the photograph contributed by Andrew Barker, the other photographs and materials from Larkin’s personnel files were contributed by the Hull History Centre. The photographs are from the University Photographic Collection and from his personnel files you can see his letter of application, the letter inviting him to interview (and his response), and also a letter explaining why he was chosen for the position of University Librarian over other, perhaps more experienced, candidates.
Andrew Barker, Sociology, 1994
I never met or saw Philip Larkin – by the time I started at Hull he was 6 years dead. However, he had, and continues to have, a huge impact on my life. He does so through his poetry and through the profession we share: librarianship. These days, to be frank, I’m almost as interested by his day job as I am his poetry.
I first came aware of Philip Larkin when I started A level English in 1989. I studied both ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘High Windows’. I fell and fell hard.
Why did I? What was the impact? The language, the tone the themes; all the obvious reasons. He said something to me about my life, and he continues to do so through his poetry – whenever someone mentions Sheffield, I mentally eat ‘an awful pie’. It is inescapable.
However, it goes on beyond his poetry. Because of the connection to Larkin, I chose Hull for my degree, I lived in Cottingham, at Needler Hall, not knowing his many connections to Needler or Cottingham until my third year when Motion’s biography was published.
I used, and loved the Brynmor Jones Library: his library, my library.
I left Hull, I became a librarian myself. In 2019, I became Director of Libraries (the modern term for University Librarian) at Lancaster University and a friend, a fellow Hull graduate, bought me a toad figurine for my desk; a nod, of course, to Larkin and his own ‘Toad’.
When I first began at Lancaster, I asked our university archivist if we had anything Larkin related in our archive. We did: a photograph of him at the opening of our library in January 1967. I attach it here.
The connections continue, as in autumn term 2020, my daughter began at Hull as an undergraduate. My library, her library: The Brynmor Jones Library.
As the man said:
New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books,too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.
Larkin is gone, but that renewal continues.
Graham Davies, Psychology 1967
My fascination with books and book collecting drew me often to the library during my student days at Hull. I observed Larkin from a respectful distance: chatting to Maeve Brennan and her colleagues on the issue desk or carefully strapping his trousers into his bicycle clips at the end of the day. I once held the door open for him at the bookshop which elicited a ‘thank you’ my sole personal interaction with him during my seven years at Hull.
However, my interest in books did bring an interesting and unreported contact. When browsing in a York bookshop I came across first editions of two of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ books which I bought for the ridiculous price of five shillings (25p). Anxious as a student to make an instant capital gain I approached the eccentric mathematician who had set up a student ‘Winnie the Pooh Society’ in the Union. He agreed to buy ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ from me for a gratifying sum.
What I had not appreciated was that this was key part of the Society’s plan to add Milne to a collection off Modern First Editions which Larkin was then assembling for the Library. He reluctantly accepted this contribution, but ensured his revenge by linking it to a prize essay competition on the theme of ‘Why should middle class students in the sixties be interested in upper class nursery literature of the twenties?’
I never heard whether the prize was awarded, but when I returned to Hull and the Library again during the ‘City of Culture’ year, I was allowed a glimpse his Office, preserved as he left it, and there was ‘my’ copy of Milne’s book shelved next to a first edition of ‘Peter Pan’!
John Butcher, History, 1976
Shortly after I began my PhD in Southeast Asian history at Hull in 1971 I ordered G.A. Henty’s Among the Malays on interlibrary loan. A couple of weeks later I received a message that I should see the University librarian, Mr Larkin. Although I was new to Hull, I knew who Mr Larkin was, as I had read some of his poetry as an undergraduate in the US (and had even been asked to analyze one of his poems in a final exam). His secretary ushered me into his office. I was scruffy as usual, while he was impeccably dressed in a suit. He explained that because the library had been unable to obtain Henty’s book through the usual channels he had personally borrowed a copy from a friend of his, the librarian at the University of Edinburgh. He gave me to understand that I was to guard it with my life, and I in turn promised to take extremely good care of it. We did not discuss poetry. It was with a great sense of relief that I returned the book to the library a week or two later. That was my one and only encounter with Mr Larkin during my four years at Hull.
Anne Howie, Geography, 1974
I started at Hull in 1971, and although I did not see much of Philip Larkin in my (very enjoyable) three years, I still remember the advice he gave at the library induction lecture. This was there are only three books you need to buy, a dictionary, a thesaurus and an atlas, because everything else you can borrow from the library, but you need these three for reference. When he said these words he could not have foreseen the internet reducing the need for possessing the first two or the pace of world change making atlases out of date overnight. However the value of the sentiment has never left me, and I still have all three on my book shelves alongside his poetry. It was ‘once seen never forgotten’ for me regarding Philip Larkin.
Chris Lilly, English and Drama, 1976
I came to Hull to read English and Drama in 1973. I had begun to despair of rock music, “Dark Side of the Moon” played in quadrophonic from every room in Nicholson Hall, I didn’t like it or much of anything else going around, and I thought I’d explore jazz. Knew very little, liked what I’d heard, found the Brynmor Jones had a phenomenal collection of jazz LPs, for reasons never disclosed.
Every lunchtime, I went into the library, borrowed 2 albums, listened to them in a sound-proof horse-shoe shaped booth with university-issue headphones, trotted off to lectures.
I was quite methodical, and started at the beginning – Sidney Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, New Orleans jazz. The musicians favoured by Mr. Larkin, as it happens. He noticed unusual activity in the (usually very quiet) jazz section, and started drifting past my booth, checking what was on the turntable on that day, murmuring a few words of encouragement – “If you like him, you should try this…” sort of thing.
Then I discovered John Coltrane. Love at first listen, the artist who has meant most to me from that day forward, “Kind of Blue” and “My Favorite Things” and “Giant Steps”, sheets of sound, wild modal exploration, soprano sax runs sounding like music in Arabic. Mr. Larkin did not like Coltrane. Mr. Larkin did not like Black Consciousness jazzers like Coltrane and Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. Mr. Larkin did not approve of my enthusiasm.
Mr. Larkin spoke to me twice more. He chatted in a friendly way when we were neighbours in the queue to see Clive James and Pete Atkin play the Lawns. And when the NUS occupied the library building in support of the students from the College of Ed on Cottingham Road, he called me a ‘graceless oik’, a description I will always treasure.
A rude, unpleasant, racist man, who disliked most people but students most of all.
Jon Newell, Economics, 1975
I had studied for English Literature o level in 1970. We had studied some of Larkin’s poems (“Zebras” is a memory) so I knew who Philip Larkin was.
In my third year I spent a lot of time in the library but was heavily influenced by the comfy chairs in the newspaper reading area.
Around 1 pm each day, I would retire to the comfy chairs for a nap. The Financial Times was always available and made an excellent shade from the light.
I recall being awakened for my nap by a tall and well spoken fellow who wondered if he could take the FT from my head – it was Philip Larkin. He was very polite.
These memories were contributed by University of Hull alumni. Aside from the photograph contributed by Andrew Barker, the other photographs and materials from Larkin’s personnel files were contributed by the Hull History Centre. The photographs are from the University Photographic Collection and from his personnel files you can see his letter of application, the letter inviting him to interview (and his response), and also a letter explaining why he was chosen for the position of University Librarian over other, perhaps more experienced, candidates.