A little card from 1954 sits in a glass case in Hull’s university library, in an exhibition that seeks to contain his life. Philip Larkin had just been interviewed for the librarian’s post. He’s not enthused. ‘Arrived safely after very dull journey,’ he wrote. ‘Hull has its Christmas decorations up, for what that’s worth … wd that I were safely rolling away. All that remains is this 41/2 hours in between. It’s a bit chilly here and smells of fish.’
He got the job. And kept it till he died some thirty years later. Hull has that reputation; once it gets you, it keeps you. I took a train for my interview at the university in 2009. I was excited. It gave me a chance to visit the Ferens Gallery with its top collection of mid 20th century British Art. I didn’t expect much else from the day. Then Hull reeled me in.
I found a home a short walk from campus – in Philip Larkin Close. My job as a writing professor includes being Director of the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing. My first event saw Faber’s new young poets arrive for a reading; simple enough. Then came the Q&A. Faber once published a Collected Edition of Larkin’s poetry and excluded a special poem. The hall erupted with accusations.
The current exhibition is an affectionate one – here’s the man’s Beatrix Potter figurines; here his school case; here the sleeves of his jazz record collection; here pyjamas and his annotated letter to pyjama suppliers (6’ 1”). In the city, the Larkin name remains a bombshell. He’s everything worth fighting for, or everything you stand against.
I’m in neither camp. The novels don’t pull it off for me while the poetry contains some narrative jewels. The finest poems are the ones Larkin judged to be so and put in his collections. ‘I’ll come to Hull,’ Julian Barnes answered to my invitation, ‘so long as I am taken to Philip Larkin’s grave while I am there.’ That, for me, is a sound approach. Larkin’s grave is marked by a white stone in the cemetery at Cottingham, a large village that borders Hull and relaxes into the countryside of the Wolds. Black stick-on letters give his name and the one word: WRITER. Like his poems, it compresses a lot into very little.
It might have said POET. ‘Larkin was unusual,’ James Booth, his recent biographer, explained to me. ‘For him the novel was the top literary form, not poetry.’ For me, Larkin’s choice of word for his grave says more than that: WRITER is stating your condition.
Julian Barnes displayed every sign of the condition. In Hull’s History Centre we brought out Larkin’s lawnmower to show him (it’s high on the wall of the current exhibition). He bent down, curiously intent. He had found a label, with fuel advice for the two stroke engine, and needed to gather in every word of it. My predecessor at Hull, the poet Christopher Reid, was known for pausing by every poster in the corridor, no matter how often he passed it, to collect its text. Words anchor a writer.
The entrance to Larkin’s exhibition winds you through shelves of his books, orange spines of Penguins thick among them. Beyond them I sat with headphones and listened to Larkin interview his mother, Eva. ‘Why were you reading Wuthering Heights?’ he asks with a snap of true interest. She speaks in a West Midlands accent familiar from my father’s family, and has her own careful way with words. When her husband-to-be Sydney sidles alongside her for the first time, she finds it ‘alarming’. Fear contained in simple language, it’s the essence of much of Larkin.
I think of Larkin and I think of myself too. I spoke with Andrew Motion on his recent visit. He taught at the university for two years and befriended Larkin. What was good were the old streets of the city centre and the chance to explore the East Yorkshire Wolds. He felt warmly toward the folk of Hull. The university of those days though was rather stuck in its ways and didn’t know how to make him welcome.
Larkin had the eyrie of his library office. He lined the porters up for their morning inspections. He walked home for lunch and then back again, often hurling abuse at students who got in his way. All the while, he turned words and memories in his head. He found somewhere to be but nowhere to belong. It’s hard to write from inside of things. Writers have an easier place on the outside, looking in.
And yet Larkin, I’m sure, felt lonely. A photo in the exhibition sees the young yet already balding Larkin seated on a rock. He wears sunglasses, a kerchief tied loose around his neck, the skimpiest of trunks, his fingers entwined on his bare knee, his legs crossed at the ankles. The pose is incredibly fey and unprotected. As an undergraduate at Oxford it’s understood he dabbled in homosexuality. By the time he was writing novellas of lesbian frolics under the pseudonym of Brunette Coleman he was, James Booth has written, ‘out of his homosexual phase’. Andrew Motion has written that those homosexual feelings ‘evaporated’. The exhibition includes the spines of diaries whose contents Larkin asked to be destroyed after his death. His secretary Betty Mackereth couldn’t but help but glimpse the occasional page as she shredded them. ‘They were very unhappy,’ she said. ‘Desperate, really.’
‘With hindsight,’ Alan Bennett has written, with Larkin’s treatment of those women he took to bed in mind, ‘he would have been wiser to persist with the messy homosexual fumbling.’
People speculate about what was written in those diary pages. I have my own guesses born of my on life. You look to destroy what society and some you care for will likely find shameful about you. Larkin abandoned his dreams of being a novelist in the wake of his friend Kingsley Amis’s riproaring success with Lucky Jim. The surrender grieved him, for James Booth was right. ‘Novels seem to be richer, broader, deeper,’ Larkin told The Paris Review in 1982, ‘more enjoyable than poems.’ Perhaps homosexuality was like being a novelist. He had a go, didn’t do very well at it, saw others doing better, so switched track. Homosexuality is not a phase and feelings don’t evaporate. It doesn’t work that way. John Banville noted that the hardcore pornography found in the file drawer in Larkin’s office and under his bed included some ‘meant for a homosexual readership’.
Larkin’s playful ‘Annus Mirabilis’ was 1963, ‘when sexual intercourse began’ but ‘a little late for me’. In 1967 gay sex was decriminalized for adults 21+ in private – even later for Larkin. He joined Hull University in 1955 – the decade had no room for gender fluidity. Students experimented while he did the best he could and grew older. One of the small cards of his sayings inside the exhibition reads ‘I don’t want to go around pretending to be me’. I’m told that after introducing a poet at the university, he took his place in the audience, reached up to his ear, and turned off his hearing aid. He didn’t want to play the poet. It was more honest to be his own private mess of a man.
On the backstreets of Hull in Larkin’s day no one knew the Larkin name. They weren’t a poetry crowd. Some university folk might cruise down from the campus for a spot of cottaging but they didn’t really stop for a chat. You did what you did, you got what you wanted if the pickings were good, and on you went. Even 1967 didn’t make street sex safe. Larkin was a tall and balding man in a raincoat and thick dark glasses, that’s all they knew. He was around now and again. Then he got a bit famous and his photo appeared in the papers. Men recognised him then alright. That’s a story I hear in Hull, one that stays close to the streets.
It’s odd, being a writer at the university. Writers aren’t a smooth fit inside the fabric of the place. For writers in the town, the university job places you at a curious remove. Years ago I said to my agent, ‘You know, I can’t do three things at once. I can’t have a job, have a social life, and write.’ The truth hit me as I spoke it. I moved to a fresh part of the country, left friends behind, took on a new job, and kept on writing. Eight years ago I moved to Hull. The process continues. You can’t write and have everything else. It’s a choice and it’s no choice. You have to write.
For the last ten years of his life Larkin’s writing pretty much dried up so he didn’t have even that. Poetizing was ‘pretending to be me’. Another me, a true me, had no open expression. Larkin was good at saying what that ‘true me’ wasn’t but could he have said what it was? Some of it was hidden with the pornography, and compressed into diariies.
I allowed myself out for the evening. It was a cheerily full house. My party-piece was a reading onstage from my upcoming gay Hull outsider novel Forever Konrad: A Vampire’s Vampire. Larkin was in the building, an outrageous portrait made of spangles and buttons in a gallery of iconic figures that festooned the walls. Beyond the lights the audience were dark outlines of themselves so I could imagine Larkin out in the crowd too. A silk scarf was wrapped around his neck, his feet were crossed at the ankles, his fingers aflutter.
First up is Dean Wilson , then Sarah Walton, and then it’s me. I read from the heart. My character Konrad’s heart. He speaks of his love for an Ancient, an Ur-species of vampire, and the night he allowed himself to be taken. And there it is: I sense a keen pinprick of interest from way over at the back. ‘Books are a load of crap,’ Larkin once confessed. What was in its place? ‘Evil was just my lark: / Me and my coat and fangs / Had ripping times in the dark.’ Vampirism and cottaging all get kind of messed up in that curious poetic conceit.
Larkin had slipped away when the lights came back on. Good fun’s best in small doses. I smiled at people, sipped my bottle of Scarborough-brewed gluten free ale, and followed him home.