Memories of Larkin Part Three: ‘To have appeared in the fringes of the life of such a literary giant…’

“I think he’d just been made Professor that year (1982) but I didn’t know then that he only had a few more years to live.  I adored poetry so was aware of his work but looking back, it feels strange to have appeared in the fringes of the life of such a literary giant.”

Ceris Morris, Drama and Theology, 1984

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 the first two parts of our Memories of Larkin series we brought together archival material relating to Larkin’s appointment as University Librarian, pages from his notebooks along with alumni memories of encounters with him in his role as librarian or as a poet. 

You can read Memories of Larkin Part One here >>

You can read Memories of Larkin Part Two here >>

In this the third and final installment of our collected alumni memories of Philip Larkin, we share some more photographs – some of Larkin, one that features his father and was sent in by alumni Rosemary Cann, and a photograph of the best looking birthday cake I have ever seen. In addition, from the archives, we find records that bookend Larkin’s time at the University of Hull, including a touching request to close the University for the day as a mark of respect after his death.

I have chosen a quote from one of our alumni to title this piece and to open with. Ceris Morris’ idea of having appeared in the fringes of the life of such a literary giant seems to perfectly encapsulate what this series of articles is about: looking at Larkin from afar; from the margins of his life. I like the unspoken question that it seems to pose, as well: what does it mean to find ourselves coming up close to such a significant literary figure?

For each of the alumni who have shared their memories in this piece, the answer to that question seems as different as the nature of the encounter: Bill is rebuked for inappropriate attire; Rosemary has a pleasant conversation in the kitchen; Amanda has a newspaper taken from her wordlessly; Stephen’s friend defiantly stands up to a dressing down; and Ivor is simply overtaken in the street.

Across the three articles, though, there is a common theme that connects the memories. Whether we encountered Larkin at work, in our personal lives, as a librarian or as a poet, we left with something that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. For some it was a transcendent aesthetic experience, for others a nasty taste in the mouth. For some it was an amusing glimpse of greatness, for others an act of generosity that may not have been expected. Each of the people who shared their memories, though, at the very least, took away a story to tell, and a story worth telling.

These memories were contributed by University of Hull alumni. The photographs and archival materials were contributed by the Hull History Centre apart from the photograph from Rosemary Cann’s personal files.

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

From the Hull History Centre Archives:
Top – U PHR/1/292 Extract from minutes of Council regarding appointment
Bottom – U PHR/1/292 Extract from the Minutes of the Meeting of the Library Committee regarding start date

Bill Bailey, Maths and Physics, 1967

As a young undergraduate The Brynmor Jones Library provided not only a wealth of resources and back up services but also facilities in which to work. The latter included the Stacks on a lower floor and a spacious Reading Room on the first floor which was often visited by Philip Larkin, the Chief Librarian, to check on his hand picked young staff and whether we were all working in silence as requested by a prominent sign by the entrance.

On one particular occasion in 1965 I was sporting a pink shirt and lurid floral tie, recently purchased in France. Both items predated the era of Flower Power which was just around the corner. PL spotted me, which was not too difficult, approached and uttered in a sotto voce interruption, ’In future visits please dress with more appropriate neckwear. Your tie is far too loud for this study area.’ Having delivered this withering pun he wandered off chuckling to himself. Rather than being offended I welcomed the street cred which resulted as a result of this chance encounter.

When I returned to Hull to teach on the Orchard Park Estate In 1968 I joined some colleagues at the Pipe and Glass, fine pub and restaurant just outside Beverley. This was a regular venue for us to celebrate another week of survival in the classroom.

On one side of our table was PL and his entourage discussing the pros and cons of John Betjeman’s latest work, not always in the most flattering of terms. On the other side was a deep sea trawlerman with his family. He was easily identified by a powder blue deckies suit with a half belt and pleats in the back of his drape jacket. It became obvious that this was his last dinner onshore before leaving for the Norwegian Coast the next day. Their discussion also concerned the current fortunes of Hull FC the rugby league club on the west side of the city.

The encounter provided an unusual juxtaposition of town and gown and a vivid contrast between the two cultures of the Hessle Road community and Pearson Park where Philip Larkin resided.

From the Hull History Centre Archives: Neg No A4250-07

Professor Michael Walton

I didn’t know Larkin well, apart from, having sat next to him a couple of times at Senate and so on. I think we would have got on better had I known of our mutual interests in Trad Jazz and cricket. I have a nice note from him after donating my first book to the  Authors’ shelves in the library, comparing Greek tragedy and cricket, though his total lack of enthusiasm for the theatre  meant he never came any of our productions.

Letter from Philip Larkin to Michael Walton 1st Oct,1980:

‘Thank you most sincerely for your kindness in presenting  us with a copy of Greek Theatre Practice for the Staff Collection. We shall no doubt be ordering a copy for the open shelves. When I was at Lord’s this summer I thought how much a Test Match  resembled a Greek tragedy: it is in five acts and the players wear masks.’

Professor Michael Walton’s reply to Philip Larkin:

Dear Dr Larkin

Thank you for your letter. There is another way in which ancient theatre resembles modern cricket. The spectators used to throw things when rain stopped play.

Rosemary Cann, Geography 1968

Philip Larkin was a friend of my parents and at their request he managed to secure a place for me in Thwaite Hall after I had been rejected because I was a vegetarian and Thwaite Hall did not cater for vegetarians. During my stay at Thwaite Hall, Philip Larkin was invited to dinner by the Head of the Hall and when he attended, I was also invited and sat next to him at the head table. This was the first time that I had met him, and I was a little awestruck by his presence and totally terrified by this experience because I was extremely shy at that time of my life, but he was very kind and made the conversation. He also came to visit me at Park Avenue to see how I was doing, and I was totally surprised to see him. We sat in the kitchen talking for some time, it never occurred to me to take him into the living room!! My flatmates were horrified with me because we stayed talking in the kitchen and thought it was not a fitting place for such an important person. Looking back at these experiences now I feel quite honoured and thankful that he took the time and effort to help me help me enjoy my time at Hull University.

My father was born in Coventry and attended King Henry VIII school as did Philip Larkin, although at different times. My father John (Jack) Cann was apprenticed to Sydney Larkin, Phillip Larkin’s father for 5 years from 1927 to 1932 as a clerk in the Treasurer’s Department in Coventry. Sydney Larkin was the City Treasurer for Coventry and my father worked and studied under him to gain his accountancy exams. When my father qualified, he left Coventry but stayed in touch with Sydney Larkin and his son Philip Larkin. My parents received signed copies of most of Philip Larkin’s books over the years, however they were sold at auction when my mother died.

From Rosemary Cann’s personal files – Sydney Larkin front row centre, and John Cann, backrow third from left

Ceris Morris, Drama and Theology, 1984

I spent a huge amount of time in the wonderful Brynmor Jones Library where Philip Larkin’s lugubrious face occasionally appeared around a book stack. As a Drama student I often snuck into the staff refectory for lunch with friends – on one occasion, with nowhere else to sit, we saw some spare places at a table already occupied and spent the rest of our sandwich eating under the full glare of a disapproving Larkin. He didn’t say a word. I think he’d just been made Professor that year (1982) but I didn’t know then that he only had a few more years to live.  I adored poetry so was aware of his work but looking back, it feels strange to have appeared in the fringes of the life of such a literary giant.

Michael Parker, Geography, 1976

To us, as students, he was a mysterious man who used to peer out from his window, occasionally ghosting around library shelves. Just wish I had kept some of the many overdue library book reminders that came my way!

Catherine Simmons, English Literature and Language, 1987

I did English Literature and Language at Hull from 1984 – 1987.  Larkin died during my second year but he was still around during my first year. 

We would see him around the library pretty often and was entirely unmistakable – a rather tall and looming presence amongst the shelves.

But most notably, I attended a poetry reading he hosted with Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion.  I think it was held in the library.   I wish I could remember exactly what they read, but 3 stellar English poets all in one room was pretty amazing. 

I live in California now but have vivid memories of my time at Hull and remain good friends with several of my house-mates.

From the Hull History Centre Archives: Neg No A5132-12

Roger Griffith, Zoology, 1975

I studied Zoology at Hull University in the 1970s and made good use of the library. My secondary school in Devon was Grenville College and one day I went in search of the poem “The Revenge – A Ballad of the Fleet” which covers Sir Richard Grenville’s famous stand against the Spanish in 1588, commanding HMS Revenge. I did not know who wrote the poem and after a fruitless search through the card files I spotted a figure in a suit who looked to be a member of library staff. He was heading out of the building, but kindly stopped, answered my questions and directed me to the place where Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem was located. 

Years later whilst researching an article on a distant relative of mine, Vernon Watkins, the Welsh poet and good friend of Dylan Thomas, I discovered that Vernon had written Dylan Thomas’s obituary and that Philip Larkin wrote his obituary in ‘The Times.’ A quick search revealed a photograph of Philip Larkin, revealing that he was none other than the man who had lent me a hand during my days at Hull University.

Amanda Arthur (nee Stott), Politics, 1982

I was at Hull 1978-1982. I used to see Philip Larkin in the library frequently and once I  was sitting on a comfy chair quietly reading the newspaper and he came over,  didn’t say a word but extracted the arts section of the newspaper and walked off! He also used to invite Ted Hughes up to talk to us.

Stephen Bolton-Brown, Psychology, 1992

Academic year 1980.

So my friend was smoking on the staircase in the library, the same level as Larkin’s office. Larkin was exiting onto said fire-escape, and came across Michael, whereupon he saw Michael smoking, and said what are you doing? Michael replied ‘Smoking’, and Larkin replied ‘Do you know who I am?’ Michael replied ‘Yes I do. Do you know who I am?’ Larkin replied ‘No.’ Michael replied ‘Good’ and promptly ran downstairs.

Paul Tipper, French, 1983

I do remember asking him a question about library holdings. But the question I asked escapes me. I do remember a desk he had just opposite the lifts on the ground floor of the BJ. I remember, also, that my question must have been naive, as he gave me a thunderous look and terrified me. It was 1980. 

Ivor Morgan, 1968

I was walking down Cottingham Road some time in 1967 or 1968.

Philip Larkin overtook me.  He was carrying a shopping bag and headed speedily into a local shop which sold bottles of wine.

From the Hull History Centre Archives: Neg No A826-1

Ruth Curtis, Drama, 1986

I attended Hull University as a Special (single honours student) in the Drama Department 1983-86. 

I was a Philip Larkin fan before coming to Hull having been given a copy of High Windows when I was about 12 years old. 

I didn’t expect to have anything to do with the university’s esteemed librarian and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had an emergency appendectomy. 

It was a simple procedure to take out my appendix but turned into a nightmare when I developed a stitch abscess. The wound opened up and I had to have it dressed daily at the university health centre. One day I was surprised by Mr Larkin wandering into the clinic where I was sat with my stomach and wound exposed whilst the nurse was organising fresh dressings. He claimed to be looking for his coat and maybe he was but it wasn’t there and the nurse didn’t have any kind words to say about him.  

I like to think the sight of me could have inspired new poetry but I doubt it did. He died not long after that and I will never forget my brief encounter with Philip Larkin. 

From the Hull History Centre Archives: U PHR/1/292 Early Retirement Reply Roy Marshall

Joanna Hills (nee Ward), Chemistry with Medicinal Chemsitry, 1986

I was at Hull from 1983 to 1986, studying Chemistry with Medicinal Chemistry.  I was a member of the Pooh Bear Reading Assistance Society, which placed volunteers in local primary schools to support children with reading difficulties.

One afternoon I was rattling a collecting tin on campus and Philip Larkin stopped and asked what I was collecting for.  (He was Head Librarian at the time, I think.) I explained about the Society but I can’t remember whether he actually contributed anything!  I expect he did.

Alan Cox, Physics, 1961

I was at Hull University from 1958 to 1967 as undergraduate through to Lecturer in the Department of Physics. My closest contact with Larkin was as a very young departmental member of the library committee. My abiding memory is of a rather small, neat man, impeccably dressed, three piece suit I recall, a quintessentially establishment figure as he chaired the committee with complete focus, formality and dominance. I thought at the time, where on earth is the poet?  This guy is more like my idea of a civil servant than that of a poet. I guess this duality in his roles is reflected in the many biographical works on the man. Two decades later, then indeed as a Civil Servant I was working as a scientific advisor in Whitehall and attended more committee meetings than I care to recall. I always carried into those meetings the template of committee management instilled through those first encounters with Larkin. I have to say in those staid Whitehall meetings none seemed quite so formal as my first encounters with bureaucracy through Mr Larkin. 

I spent many an hour in Larkin’s new library that opened soon after my arrival in Hull and saw very little of him there! Maeve Brennan was very much more to the fore with any enquiries I had. My wife of 8 months Pauline and I attended the staff dance that Maeve persuaded Philip to attend. I have no recall of seeing them at the dance which is a pity given the impact it clearly had on him. My only other direct recall  is sharing the same train with him to London and seeing a wedding party on the platform in one of the stopping stations. He was travelling first class which amused me as it was foreign territory to me in those days. I was astonished to read Whitsun Weddings, and tried hard to meld my shared journey and witnessing the wedding party on the platform with his immortalised lines. Truth to say, it may well have been a different occasion that our paths crossed.

My friend and mentor in the department Bill Duffin (WJ Duffin author of a major undergraduate series of text books on Electricity and Magnetism) as a near neighbour seems to have received a bad press in Larkin’s letters. I have always somewhat resented that. Bill and his family were great fun and extremely kind to my wife and I as young members of staff: there were two older girls and young Buster Duffin. Buster was indeed a handful and I quite like the idea he got under the great sage’s skin. 

Jane Keating, 1964

I was an active member of the women’s boat club in the early 1960s. The culmination of the rowing season’s activities, and an enjoyable one, was our visits to regattas in York, Leeds, and Durham, where the men ‘s crews had some success. Philip Larkin was a frequent visitor at these events, and presumably encouraged the men to victory. All was quite amateurish, with no training sessions for either men or women. It was an enjoyable activity for all.

In the library, he was frequently to be seen, giving the impression of being  rather a reclusive person.

A fine for the late return of a book was 6d, which seemed little and maybe few people incurred the fine.

Richard Eves

October 1972 Philip Larkin addressed the fresher year in a large Hull Campus auditorium.

I attended. He was quiet and very unprepossessing and appeared to wish he had not had to address us. He has my sympathy, I have to make public addresses and I would rather be anywhere else.

Anyway he posed the question, ”If you were to go to a theatrical production of a Shakespeare play which was billed as being staged, ‘in contemporary dress” how would you expect the actors to dress? in modern day clothing or Elizabethan costume?”

Apparently the English language can be so imprecise on occasions that the correct answer was either mode of dress would have been described correctly on the playbill. I had no opinion because I would never attend anyway.

I liked his modesty. However, one habit he had was a bit elitist; he would walk across the grass lawned area fronting the Brynmor Jones Library, taking a shortcut to the entrance. Later  I observed fellows at Cambridge crossed the lawned courtyards in the same manner.

From the Hull History Centre Archives:
Top – U PHR/1/292 Extract from senate minutes announcing his death and that he was the longest serving member of senate
Bottom – U PHR/1/292/ suggestion to close University sent to registrar

These memories were contributed by University of Hull alumni. The photographs and archival materials were contributed by the Hull History Centre apart from the photograph from Rosemary Cann’s personal files.

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

4 thoughts on “Memories of Larkin Part Three: ‘To have appeared in the fringes of the life of such a literary giant…’

  1. I wonder why my Larkin memoirs have not appeared her.
    I wrote a few weeks back about my parents’ friendship with him and my mother’s work connection.
    Also my connection with the Marvell Press which was next door to where I lived
    I included several first hand anecdotes which centre around Larkin.
    If you’d like me to resend I am happy to do so.
    I studied English and Spanish at Hull from 64 to 68


    1. Hi Adrian, thank you, I saw your comment under the previous article and liked it. It would be great if you would like to expand on that for another potential piece. Please drop us an email on


  2. Interesting, but may I suggest you tactfully correct Rosemary Cann’s misspelling of “Phillip” Larkin? And “King Henry V111” should be King Henry VIII. A roman 1 is a capital I, not a number 1. They didn’t have numbers as we know them, which is why the used letters!

    Ray Ward (Politics 1977)


  3. I had forgotten this piece so am grateful that you reminded me.

    A bit of a laboured style but no doubt it will impress my friends who think that scientists can’t write!

    You are doing a good job.

    Keep up the good work!


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