The first poem by Philip Larkin I can remember reading is ‘Wild Oats’, in an English lesson in Hull with Mr Grayson, to whom I am greatly indebted for introducing me to 20th-century poetry. ‘Wild Oats’, with its sense of lost romantic opportunity and the slow exhaustion of a relationship that entailed settling for less, was beyond the emotional and imaginative reach of a class of fourteen-year-old boys. Mr Grayson must have been perfectly aware of this. And the poem stuck in my memory, just as the school library’s copy of The Whitsun Weddings somehow entered my possession.
Half a century later, I think perhaps I understand ‘Wild Oats’. When I first encountered it, I was beginning to read and write poetry in a great burst of excitement. An early discovery was a sprawling, obstreperous poem by Brian Higgins, ‘The North’, which turned snarling on Hull University and described Larkin as ‘a sad poet,/A beat-up Beverley Nichols all kodaks and missed chances’. At the time, this was more to my taste than Larkin’s poems. Higgins, a colourful literary mountebank, died young and is forgotten. Larkin’s work, however ‘beat-up’ or peculiar its author may have been, survives in the collective memory, and if people have a reason to imagine Hull, they will often do so through Larkin’s evocation of the place. I’ve long since ceased to be able to distinguish the city from the poems.
The centre of imaginative operations, it seems to me, is Pearson Park, where Larkin lived for many years in a university flat looking down towards the chestnut trees, the pond and the plant house. Beyond that lay wide grassy areas with avenues of limes, a children’s playground, a bowls club and so on, surrounded by some pretty grand Victorian villas. During my childhood, they were going gently to seed and being divided into flats. A statue of Queen Victoria presides, and there is or was a plaque indicating that the park, the first in the city, was the gift of Zachariah Pearson, once the mayor, now mainly noted for seeking to run guns to the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
If you walked a mile or so to the south you found bomb sites, the last of which was not cleared for fifty years after the Second World War. Second to London, Hull, a major port, was the most severely bombed city in England. Larkin, a son of Coventry, itself half-obliterated, didn’t refer to this directly but on arrival characterised Hull as a ‘frightful dump’. The park survived the war, crammed with Nissen huts, then fell quiet again, with its French Convent girls’ school, mysterious spiritualist church and melancholy air of possibility.
The place was big enough for fog to propose mystery, parting to show gangs of small boys playing football, parting again to show some of them later, long-haired and nurturing smokers’ coughs, on their way to becoming the lost souls of ‘Toads Revisited’, the ‘men/You meet of an afternoon’ in the park, perhaps to end as ‘characters in long coats/Deep in the litter-baskets’. Overcoats, whether the grey gabardines worn by innumerable men in the 1950s or the ‘long coats’ worn by ‘the priest and the doctor’ running across the fields to a deathbed in ‘Days’, seem ominous for Larkin, like evidence of irredeemable failure, with worse to follow.
Larkin tends to reserve his sympathy for women, including those who live on the ‘raw estates’ built at the edge of the city to replace the bombed housing stock. There they are with their prams on the ‘new recreation ground’. It seems to Larkin that ‘Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives’. His response may seem both impertinent (how can he know this?) and attuned to a current of feeling that had yet to emerge into articulacy. For Larkin, public spaces, whether the rec on the estate or a Victorian park, are stages where indoors and outdoors meet and where the motives and predicaments of strangers cannot but suggest or reveal themselves.
On the couple of occasions I met Larkin, he was both reserved and affable. Once he appeared before a poetry reading by Gavin Ewart, held in a room above a pub, not an event you might expect him to attend, though he liked Ewart’s work and wrote a poem for his birthday. Larkin insisted on buying my companion and me enough beer to make the subsequent reading itself rather vague. This did not seem to be the same Larkin who, in his welcome address as librarian to the ‘dutiful mob’ of newly arrived students at the university, fiercely declared that one thing you didn’t do with books was use rashers of bacon to mark your place. The vehemence – perhaps slightly stagy, perhaps not – re-emerged in a private context when the blaring of a radio in a downstairs flat led him to wish that Marconi had been buried in a lavatory for camels.
It was not until some time after Larkin had left Pearson Park for the ‘ugliest house in Hull’, up near the university, that I discovered we had almost been neighbours. My parents had moved into the house next door, a three-storey Victorian semi. The attic has the same slightly ecclesiastical high windows as those Larkin might be evoking in the title poem of his last book. I stayed for a while in the attic, writing at the window and looking down on the chestnut trees and the pond, unaware of who had recently been similarly occupied next door. It’s a connection, but then again it isn’t, which seems apt. As Larkin puts it, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
The problem of noisy neighbours returned in spades when the house where Larkin had lived was occupied by students. My father was dying; they could not grasp that playing music at full volume late at night prevented him from sleeping. I had recently been one of those thoughtless bastards, but I was infuriated. Reasoning on the doorstep did not avail. In the end my father, enraged, got up, went out and threw a dustbin lid over the garden wall at the neighbours’ kitchen window. My mother had to sneak round in her dressing gown and retrieve it.
In my father’s final days, he lay on an upper floor of the then recently built Hull Royal Infirmary, the tallest structure in a city without hills. It was the subject of Larkin’s poem ‘The Building’. Around the infirmary, Larkin pictures ‘close-ribbed streets’ that rise and fall, ‘like a great sigh out of the last century’. In one of those terraced streets my maternal grandparents brought up five children on the tiny wage my grandfather received as a workhouse attendant. Somehow the children avoided tuberculosis, the disease to which Larkin may be alluding. Three of them became nurses; the other two were headmistresses in schools they might have attended themselves had they not passed the scholarship examination to the local grammar.
Of all modern English poets, Larkin is perhaps the one with whom most readers feel some imaginative affinity, a sense of having lived in the same world, with the same streets, the same unvoiced longings and anxieties. In terms of politics and attitudes to class and race, Larkin’s views could scarcely be further from my own. I share the opinion of the Hull poet Frank Redpath, who remarked to Larkin across the dinner table that he ‘was a political ignoramus’. But the exactness of Larkin’s observation, the breadth of his sympathies in the teeth of his prejudices, his musicality, his unfailing sense of place and time and his memorability have made me a gift of my own home town. In imagination now, I cross the park – autumn, football, ‘characters’, the chestnuts shedding gold leaf – and I go into the old house and upstairs to the window, where, as usual, it might seem that nothing is happening, until a figure appears among the trees, long coat flapping.