The life Poetry and local Connectivity of Philip Larkin

A talk by Sheila Woolf, a writer on Larkin's work
On Tuesday
13th November 2018

The Leamington Literary Society held its annual joint meeting with the Leamington Society in the Dormer Conference Centre. About 70 people attended to hear Sheila Woolf speak on The Life, Poetry and Local Connectivity of Philip Larkin. The meeting, chaired by the Leamington Literary Society’s chairman, Trevor Humphreys, began at 7.30 p.m. and finished at 9.30 p.m., with an interval for drinks, interaction and the possibility of looking at Larkin material and Chris Arnot’s book, Larkin about in Coventry.

Sheila Woolf considers Larkin (1922-1985) the greatest poet of the latter half of the twentieth century and one not sufficiently celebrated in the Midlands. She expressed a hope that would be rectified when Coventry takes on the role of City of Culture in 2021. In brief,, Sheila Woolf told th audience that Larkin gained a number of awards, was offered the post of Poet Laureate (which he turned down) and spent his working days as a librarian, gaining the post of University of Hull Librarian in 1955. In addition to his poetry for which he is best known, he wrote two novels and numerous jazz reviews for the Daily Telegraph.

He was born and brought up in Coventry: the Cathedral, where he was christened, was his parish church; the Old Grammar School, now King Henry VIII, his local school. He spent 1930-1940 there both as a junior and senior pupil. His first published poetry appeared in the school magazine,
The Coventrian, which he was later to edit; and his first publication (prose) at the age of twelve ‘Getting Up in the Morning’, was also in the school magazine. One of his school reports (again at the age of twelve) said he had ‘a real sense of rhythm and beauty’; in another the head master noted he had a ‘tendency to foolishness’. His father, Sydney, Coventry City’s Treasurer, was a fascist, a great admirer of Hitler’s efficiency and kept Nazi paraphernalia in his office. He took Philip to Germany with the unwanted consequence of instigating in him a dislike of foreign travel in later life. The local Free Library, known then as the Gulson library (established with donations from the mayor John Gulson in 1873) was one of Larkin’s favourite childhood haunts — he is known to have read a book a day. He took a first in English literature at Oxford (St John’s College). He then failed the army test due to flat feet and poor eyesight and went into librarianship.

When Larkin left Coventry it was largely a medieval town. In 1941 his school was bombed. In later years he returned to Coventry to see how the city had changed. He wrote up his findings in ‘Reminiscences’. He was also a keen photographer. The Ring Road went through what had been his home, but his school remained. On the day he visited, a cricket match was in action. The well known poem ‘I remember, I remember’, written after one of these return trips, has been misinterpreted by many as a rejection of his home town but Sheila Woolf told her audience that this was not the case: Larkin was making fun of other poems which romanticised their childhood home while Larkin was telling the reader this is where he spent his childhood and that it was not the place’s fault.

Sheila Woolf engaged her audience in her excellent reading of some of Larkin’s poems: ‘WInter Nocturne’ a sonnet written when he was sixteen published in
The Coventrian in 1928; ‘Spring Morning’ also in The Coventrian in 1940; and for the 1985 centenary edition ‘Wild Oats’, a typically self-deprecatory poem. Sheila Woolf was then herself editor of The Coventrian and recalled her correspondence with Larkin, mentioning how conscientious Larkin was in replying to letters. She also read and drew the audience’s attention to what she considers one of Larkin’s finest poems, ‘Aubade’ which gives expression to Larkin’s fear of death (he was a man of no religious feelings).

Sheila Woolf feels that Coventry and the local area have not commemorated Philip Larkin appropriately. There is now a memorial in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey (2016). His school celebrated is 400th anniversary in 2002 and Sheila Woolf and others created the Larkin Room and a memorial plaque was placed in 2015, but there is no statue at Coventry Station. Hull, she reminded the audience, had a splendid statue of Larkin sculpted by Martin James at the Railway Station.

During the question time Sheila Woolf corroborated that the Larkin family had moved to Warwick in 1943 and had lived on the Mason Road. She mentioned two biographies by James Booth and Andrew Motion and also drew the audience’s attention to very recently published family letters in which it is possible to explore his relationship with his mother and sister. She confirmed that Larkin was right-wing and a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher — but he had lunch regularly with his left-wing friend, John Saville. He was not shy of making friends but was not eminently gregarious. He kept in touch with old school friends during later life and was a great friend of Kingsley Amis.
The audience much appreciated Sheila Woolf’s clear, informative and detailed talk.

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