Philip Larkin

Our speaker at the May meeting was Peter Young, the City's Town Clerk, whose specialist subject was Philip Larkin and his association with Lichfield. Peter denied being an expert on Philip Larkin - he had, he told us, only been at Hull University when Larkin was the Chief Librarian. An early comment of Larkin's on Lichfield was "God this place is dull" - Peter's talk was far from that, expert or not.

Peter obtained an English degree, almost by accident as his chosen subject was law - which he gave up after six weeks perhaps due to the higher proportion of females reading English! James Booth, his tutor, required a dissection of Larkin's "Ambulances" for a tutorial and thus began his interest - he wrote a parody of "Ambulances" called "Milk Floats" which he later recited. Larkin was a misanthrope, resembling Eeyore who disliked the working class and undergraduates, but Peter was impressed and spent 75p on a slim volume entitled "The Whitsun Wedding". In 1976 this was lot of money that would, he said, have bought 600 pages of Thomas Hardy - or many beers. Peter recited this poem that is now in the nation's top 100.

Whilst Philip Larkin was born in Coventry there were long standing associations with Lichfield, dating back to 1757. The families produced numerous offspring - Larkin's father, Sydney, was the youngest of seven. Nos 21 & 49 Tamworth Street housed Larkin families. Sydney had only two children ten years apart [perhaps for economic reasons] with Philip being born in 1922. Sydney was a self made, opinionated, man - an admirer of Germany and Hitler. He took Philip to a Nuremburg rally in 1937 - Philip disliked Germany. Sydney's reward as Treasurer of Coventry Council was the OBE. Whilst Larkin's father met his mother in somewhat romantic circumstances [a cycling holiday to Rhyl in 1906] the family atmosphere was hardly congenial - both `dull' and `mad'. His mother, Eva, was an intelligent woman frustrated by domesticity. We know the now [in]famous line about parents and their effect on children!

In November 1940, Philip was at St John's College, Oxford and his course was shortened by the war. Following the Coventry blitz [Sydney had the foresight to order 1000 card board coffins the year before] the Larkins had decamped to 33 Cherry Orchard, the family home of an aunt and uncle. Sydney continued to work in Coventry, whist Eva remained in Lichfield. The house being too small for all the Larkins, Philip was boarded out to another Cherry Orchard residence [unknown]. Philip disliked his relatives - `no one got on'. He wrote to his school friend, James Sutton, of his discomfort - he had finished all his books and had f*** all to do; but at least he had a room to himself where he could belch and fart - and booze in the George. Here he wrote three poems; "Christmas 1940", "Ghosts" and "Out in the lane I pause" [describing his walk into town one night] - a good output as it was usually about 2.5 poems per year! Peter suggested that he might have referred to the Gazebo and the White Lady at the Swan in these poems. In 1943 Larkin obtained a First Class Honours degree from Oxford. Wellington and Leicester Universities provided his first library posts - then the `happiest five years' at Queen's, Belfast. From 1955, until his death in 1985 he was Chief Librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University. Here he supervised the construction of the seven storey extension - the envy of many universities. He had published in 1945 a collection of poems, "The North Ship", and two novels "Jill" and "A Girl in Winter" and followed these with "The Less Deceived" in 1956, "The Whitsun Weddings" in 1964 and in 1974 "High Windows". Despite this he rejected the position of Poet Laureate following John Betjeman's death [in 1984].

Peter told us that his one claim to fame is that he stood beside Larkin for two whole minutes in his student days at a Clive James concert, before the latter disappeared in disgust. In 1987 Lichfield City Council took over St Michael's old Churchyard, it having been closed for future burials. Searching the old files Peter found a letter from Larkin requesting a plan of the area - curious considering in the 1940's he visited the family graves every Easter. In 1977 he witnessed his mother's ashes buried there and both Eva and Sydney have engraved tablets amongst the raised stones. There are twenty Larkin graves in the churchyard and these are attended by the City Council - the two tablets can easily be found. Larkin wrote two letters to the then rector, Andrew Payne, regarding the changes he had brought about - describing it as a `vandals assault course'. Larkin himself is buried at Cottingham near Hull - where the simple grave stone is inscribed "Writer".

In 2001, Don Lee of the Philip Larkin Society contacted Peter to arrange a visit for members - `Lichfield's Larkins'. Visitors included James Booth, Professor Chappell, a former mistress and Nick Larkin, a second cousin, once removed - they visited 33 Cherry Orchard, the Churchyard and Market Square where Larkin used the former loos! Finally to the Museum Grounds where Peter recited "Milk Floats" before Captain Smith's statue.

Milk Floats

Open like football stands they dread
Damp dawns of cities, giving out
Pintas and taking in empties,
Rattling and clinking, blue and white,
In grimy streets come `Northern Dairies';
All steps in time are visited.

Then sleepy children feeling bored
Or women coming from the slops
Of last night's TV dinner see
An off-white cream that overtops
The milk they've waited patiently,
As it is carried in and poured,

And taste the cornflake emptiness
That's just like all the lines we write,
And yet again to get it wrong,
So permanently bland and trite,
For clever style cannot for long
Disguise our snobbish bookishness.

[Reprinted with the author's permission]

Following questions Tony Crookes thanked Peter for his excellent talk, describing it as refreshing change in our normal programme of speakers.

Lorna Bushell
May 2008