Memories of Larkin Part Two: ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life…’

“Many of us will remember journeys to and from Hull as reflected by Larkin for instance in ‘Here’ where he travels North and then along the Humber to Hull – and then all the way to Spurn Head ‘And the widening river’s slow presence………Here is unfettered existence, Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’ or when he travels out of Hull on the train in ‘Whitsun Weddings’ – ‘We ran behind the backs of houses….smelt the fish dock; thence The river’s level drifting breadth began, Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’.”

John Welsby, History, 1978
From the Hull History Centre archives: U DLV/3/47/5 – Photo of Larkin in an armchair with blank paper and pencil in front of him

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 brought 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. You can read that here >>

In this article, alongside encounters with Larkin the librarian, we also share some longer pieces that are encounters with him as a poet. In addition, the Hull History Centre have kindly shared some archival material that shows pages from his notebooks – early drafts of familiar poems.

From the Hull History Centre archives: U DPL2 – Early Writings – selection of pieces written whilst still at school

In these memories sent in by Hull alumni (and one friend of a Hull alumnus), we find ourselves at the unveiling of his plaque at Westminster Abbey, at a poetry reading where he finds a creative excuse not to pass comment on another poet, enjoying a pint with some sandwiches, and turning down the opportunity to inspire some young people. We have thoughtful recollections, poetic responses to brief encounters, even a limerick. In John Welsby’s longer piece of writing at the end of this article, Larkin transforms from an underwhelming figure leading a group of first years on a library tour to someone who becomes a gateway through to a new intellectual life and a passion for poetry (Larkin’s specifically, but also poetry in general).

I chose to open this article with a quote from the final paragraph of John’s contribution because I loved the idea that through Larkin’s poems we might be able to evoke memories of past trips to Hull, because the hope is that in recording memories here we might find something in them that triggers further recollections, or produces a desire to pick up one of his books and encounter the man in his poetry.

These memories were contributed by University of Hull alumni. The photographs and archival materials were contributed by the Hull History Centre. Copyright for the manuscripts and drafts of Larkin’s writing lies with the Society of Authors who have kindly granted the University of Hull permission to use this material for activities related to Larkin100.

Should you wish for more information, you can find out more about the Hull History Centre here >>

Ray Ward, Politics, 1977

I took a BA in Politics at Hull in 1974-7 after ten years with the City Libraries in my home city of Sheffield during which I became a Chartered Librarian. Larkin and I therefore had a profession in common.

I already knew of Larkin’s fame as a poet and that he was the University Librarian. I first saw him in person at a freshers’ introductory meeting where he was introduced as a poet whose work had found its way into GCE syllabuses. I remember him saying that students should try to write good English; the only specific piece of advice I can recall was to avoid mixed metaphors like “This bottleneck must be ironed out.”

I had a girlfriend called Jill who when I asked what she wanted for her birthday replied that a copy of Larkin’s Jill might be appropriate. I bought two copies, went to his office, and handed them in with a note explaining the Jill/Jill connection and a request that he sign one for my girlfriend and the other for me. I was warned he didn’t always sign things, but they came back signed. One went to Jill, and I still have the other.

I got onto the Library Users’ Sub-Committee (mainly, I think, as a result of mentioning at the Union meeting where such posts were filled that I was a qualified librarian), and went to many meetings, usually seeing Larkin there.

I have maintained my interest in Larkin and his work. I have been a member of the Philip Larkin Society since it was formed and have every issue of its journal, About Larkin, to which I have contributed. I have been to numerous PLS events including the annual Larkin walks in places associated with him that used to be held around his birthday, and the annual openings of his former home in Newland Park. I was at the unveiling of the plaque there.

On one of the walks I met the late Jean Hartley of the Marvell Press, publishers of his first work to attract significant attention, The Less Deceived, and got to know her quite well. I have a signed copy of her marvelous memoir, Philip Larkin, the Marvell Press and Me. I also met Betty Mackereth and Maeve Brennan, and have a signed copy of Maeve’s “reminiscence” (her word in her inscription), The Philip Larkin I Knew. I met Anthony Thwaite and he signed my (battered and tattered) copy of Selected Letters, and, briefly, Andrew Motion, who signed my copy of his biography. But the Larkin scholar I got to know best was James Booth, and I was at the London launch of his superb biography and (of course) got a signed copy. He was kind enough to arrange for a copy of the paperback to be sent to me.

I wonder what Maeve would think of my Larkin collection being next to my Alan Bennett collection, in view of what she said about him in her book! Bennett is an excellent writer, one of my favourites, but his review of Motion’s biography was, as Maeve says, decidedly unpleasant.

I was at the unveiling of Larkin’s plaque in Westminster Abbey in 2016. It was freezing, and James says he got hypothermia! And I was rather surprised to see Alan Bennett there….

From the Hull History Centre archives: U DPL/1/3 Toads 1 (part of manuscript draft of poem ‘Toads’ from workbooks)

Jane Dale, English and Drama, 1981

I was a member of the Poetry Society. Craig Raine came to a meeting to read his poetry and an invitation was extended to Philip Larkin to attend, which he duly accepted (but probably not willingly). Philip Larkin entering a room always caused a bit of a stir, as he was usually a shadowy figure walking across campus to the library in his mac and with his plastic carrier bag; but there he was in the room and he sat quite close to the front. Craig Raine read his poems, which were much appreciated by the audience. At the end, I overheard the chair of the Poetry Society asking Larkin what he thought of this up and coming poet. Larkin responded that he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids so he really couldn’t comment!

From the Hull History Centre archives: PAL with camera neg A1116-2

Nicola Oatham, Psychology, 1986

A  moment – a step

Undergraduate, just 19
Sat half way up cold library staircase

‘Why, why are YOU sat here young woman?’

I think it’s ‘Him’?
I stare hard
Yes, it’s Larkin

He verbally prods
Quotes number of staircases in library, versus EXACT number of chairs
Not unkindly, but determined for an answer

‘Waiting for friends’ – I lie
In truth lonely and hiding, wedged against the wall, hoping to disappear, pretending to read, sat on a single step

slow half smile, or smirk
Not unkindly but challenging

‘It’s warmer up there’, he nods his head upwards

‘I like the shadows here’ – I reply, defiant

A definite smirk – he wanders off

Feeling stupid and smug, but somehow better understood, I wander off too

From the Hull History Centre archives: U DLV/3/55/6 – Photo of Larkin stood in a room, on a table to the right you can see an open work book and pencil

David Brown, Psychology, 1972

I did see Philip Larkin from time to time wandering around the campus looking like a morose suburban bank manager.  However, he did give the university some cachet, along with the three Hull graduates who became deputy leaders of the Labour party (Three!)

I had a note from Larkin once when I priggishly complained about too much noise in the Brynmor Jones library.  ‘Why not put up notices asking for silence?’ I asked. His reply said, ‘I fear such notices would be facetiously annotated.’  Marvellous!

I am grateful that there was a poetry library at Hull, probably because of Philip Larkin. It introduced me to Leonard Cohen for which I am eternally grateful.

There was a librarian called Phil
Who was adept with his quill,
He was a top poet,
And we all know it,
Cos we’re talking about him still.

Oddly he lived in Hull,
Which you’d think might be rather dull,
But he quite liked the place
Cos it suited his pace,
And gave him some time to mull

Matthew McKaig, Social Sciences and Criminology, 1982

Seeing PAL in Staff House,
at lunchtimes.
Standing by the bar,

Unwrapping his cling-filmed sandwiches,
almost daintily.
Then eating, perhaps with
half a pint.

Large, a little elephantine.
Looking around
with his neutral face.
But always taking it in.

Or was he just bored?

I do so wish I paid more attention to, and was more aware of this monumental figure…

With some regret, Matthew

Yvonne Dickinson

I did not go to Hull University but my friend David Gilling did.

He first became aware of my enjoyment of Larkin’s work when he saw my pseudonym-Larkinfan– on the BBO website. I partnered his wife at Bridge during Lockdown on Bridge Base Online.

I came to the celebratory events you held at Hull pre-pandemic and enjoyed them very much.

However, I had an encounter with Philip Larkin way back in 1968 when I was a keen new graduate and teacher of English Literature.

I was teaching at Accrington Grammar School for Boys. A benefactor had given the School a large sum for Cultural Enrichment experience. As the youngest in the department I was told to get on, spend it, get the lads culturally-enriched. I thought the best way to achieve that was to invite Larkin over to read his poems and to generate discussion by answering questions on them. I was smitten with his work and thought everyone must have some. The fee could surely not exceed the amount in the pot, and, if it did, we’d have a jumble sale.

So I wrote and invited him.

What on earth did I expect?

He wrote back to say he never did that kind of thing. He recognised that it meant he had to turn down the attractive invitations as well as the less attractive ones. I immediately felt the sardonic sneer that I loved so much in his poetry. Not too difficult to work out where my invite stood! I binned the letter (Wow).

I spent the money on taking a coachload to see Shakespeare at Stratford!

From the Hull History Centre archives: U DPL/1/6 Here 2 (part of manuscript draft of poem ‘Here’ from workbooks)

John Welsby, History, 1978

My only personal memory of Philip Larkin was on my freshers’ tour of the library; my group was told we were lucky as we had ‘the man himself’ to take us round – I had no idea to whom this referred, apart from him being the person in charge of the library, so duly followed him round without my ignorance being revealed!  I was not really interested in poetry until later middle age but when I began reading more, I used this tenuous link as a pointer to a body of poetry to explore and since then I have grown to love Larkin’s poetry.

I went on to experiment with delving deeper into a few literary lives and focused first on Samuel Johnson, born not far from where we live, and then on Larkin – again because of this link. Larkin’s life and attitudes posed more of a challenge than Johnson’s I have to say (and may have been even harder if his diaries had survived??) but I thought that if you really want to go into somebody’s life who lived in the public eye, to get some sort of understanding of them, you have to be ready for whatever you find, and avoid leaping to condemn too quickly, just in case somebody is looking as closely at you.

Over the years I have collected various books of Larkin’s poetry, editions of his letters, a collection of his photography, some of his other writings, general biographies and those focusing on particular aspects such as his relationship with his first publishers and of course his relationship with Monica Jones.

My favourite biography is Booth’s (Larkin: Life, Art and Love) which via the index enables you to link references in the text to his poems if you have a ‘Collected Poems’ at your side. Some argue that literary biographies should keep life and work separate – never understood that as it is the very connection between those two things that is of most interest to me and is addressed well by Booth.

Reading about his life raises lots of difficulties, revealing someone with unsavoury views, even taking into account the difference between his generation and the present day. Also revealed is someone who never got over his insecurities. Many of these seem to have originated in his early life (see ‘This be the Verse’) and led him to fear commitment, causing hurt to others and imposing severe restrictions on his ability to get close to others and not surprisingly to his living out his ending to that famous poem.  Perhaps the best evidence of how he felt trapped by his history, was that as he had always predicted, he died at the same relatively early age as his father – and indeed of the same condition.

There were other sides to him of course and he did enjoy many relationships and while he never married Monica (and was not faithful to her), he did invite her to live with her when she most needed it.

One of the things my wife and I enjoyed most when staying in Hull when it was the City of Culture, was a visit to the BJL to see an exhibition about Larkin which presented things about him that you would never guess – the fun and humour he shared with his staff at the BJL and how much admiration they often had for him.

I was able to add to my Larkin collection at the BJL then as well as they were selling remaining CDs of him reading his own poetry.

Larkin’s poems are often blunt but generally less contentious than aspects of his life and I have  often found that there is an authenticity about them – though you have to be prepared for his repeatedly melancholic or depressing view of life! Of his poems, I started with his earliest collection ‘The North Ship’ which I didn’t like – later learning that he didn’t think much of it either as he changed his style in line with the ‘movement’ poets of the 50/60s! For me, his next collection – ‘The Less Deceived’ with reflections on day-to-matters such as his girlfriend showing him photos of herself before he knew her – a time lost to him – or wondering what it was like for a woman to be married and to give up her maiden name and in ‘Born Yesterday’ offering some really profound and counter-cultural blessings for a baby girl born to his friend. I like ‘Church Going’ too – whether you are a believer of not, you may well share his experience of visiting old churches and while the evidence is that he got his predictions of the demise of the church in the wider sense wrong, I loved his ‘Hatless, I take off my bicycle clips in awkward reverence’ – you can see him doing that.

He writes about every-day life, about visiting his old family home in ‘Home is so sad’, about visiting a care home and about the mixture of feelings experienced by people in a wedding party – from exuberance to raucous uncles to the women ‘who shared the secret like a happy funeral’ (I did say he was generally depressing!). He wrote about relationships like the one that  is dying (‘It becomes more difficult to find, words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind’) but occasionally more positive – I love ‘An Arundel Tomb’ reflecting on the stone figures on the tomb – and while my reading has convinced me  that Monica wrote the last line, not Philip, and while I know he later disparaged it a little, the poem and the tomb are there for all to see in Chichester Cathedral with the famous last line –  ‘What will survive of us is love’.

Reading Larkin has also encouraged me to explore other poets, including those of old or more recent times with Hull connections – Andrew Marvell and Stevie Smith – and of Thomas Hardy, who I had only known as a novelist before.

For me Larkin had a way of capturing things he experienced in a few words that were enough for us to feel his meaning. Included in this was his ability to capture Hull as his chosen home for many years. Many of us will remember journeys to and from Hull as reflected by Larkin for instance in ‘Here’ where he travels North and then along the Humber to Hull – and then all the way to Spurn Head ‘And the widening river’s slow presence………Here is unfettered existence, Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’ or when he travels out of Hull on the train in ‘Whitsun Weddings’ – ‘We ran behind the backs of houses….smelt the fish dock; thence The river’s level drifting breadth began, Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’.

These memories were contributed by University of Hull alumni. The photographs and archival materials were contributed by the Hull History Centre. Copyright for the manuscripts and drafts of Larkin’s writing lies with the Society of Authors who have kindly granted the University of Hull permission to use this material for activities related to Larkin100.

Should you wish for more information, you can find out more about the Hull History Centre here >>

6 thoughts on “Memories of Larkin Part Two: ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life…’

  1. I read law 1973-76 and Philip Larkin was a regular presence in the library, configured very differently from the present entrance. Then you walked in and the long desk for borrowing books was along the right hand side. He was a solitary, brooding presence and must have found the constant murmurings about him rather strange. Fairly recently, one of my friends told me that there were a group of students [ including him – Ian you know who you are!] who deliberately returned books late to get his handwritten notes chastising them with his signature! Needless to say that never occurred to me as a very law abiding student. Carol Tullo [ Dodgson]


  2. Was it a revolving door when I first said “aw- right-n’at the library entrance
    and was greeted with a grudging hello?
    Was he in the highest storey when Flixborough exploded and the library just trembled at the blast?
    Was he the icon of insularity and bad taste in clothes as I continued our acknowledgement of each other’s existence…he, just in case I was someone of note ?
    Was it he who encouraged an armed guard on the ICL 1900 computer that released the monthly pay cheques in the Hull student revolt 1971?
    Was it he who “F____ me up” or my mum & dad?
    What ever… we both loved Spurn Head…all is forgiven.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yesterday
    Philip Larkin, dark suited manaquin behind the glazed revolving door. Custodian of knowledge at the Brymor Jones Library. Behind that Icy stare, More like bank clerk than poet. Disliked the modern world , youth and life. Yearned for death and lived in its shadow. And what of now?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I saw him standing at the back,
    A distant vacant look,
    Was this the beginning of a poem,
    An ode, a rhyme, a book?
    Stacked up shelves with careful lists,
    A place I always missed,
    For my delights lay out of doors,
    And this was not my wish,
    So, I didn’t stay, I gave my book,
    And hurried off to play,
    And left him wondering possibly,
    Why had I come that day ?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My mother worked in the library under Philip for twenty years until the early 80’s.
    Maeve was a friend. She and Philip sometimes came to us for supper at our house two doors up from the Marvell Press.The house is on the corner of Hull Road and First Lane Hessle. TheHartleys who ran the Marvel Press were neighbours and when I was in my final year I gave George a film script of Cohen’s Beautiful
    Losers which I had written because he’d told me he’d been offered a job at the newly formed National Film Centre(I may have got the name of the institution wrong: advanced years and all that.)
    I have a few Larkin anecdotes from personal experience which I can share with anyone who’s interested.
    The last time I saw him was in the staff bar over a couple of pints while I gave him my mum’s regards. He died shortly after that.

    Liked by 1 person

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