In April 2014 I spent a long weekend in Scarborough. On the last day I had one last lap of the South Bay then drove south to Hull. I’d never been before and there for one reason - my favourite poet Philip Larkin. I wanted to see the homes where he wrote most of his poems, lived out his complicated love life and his final resting place.
Tall, bald, thick spectacles, wry, shy, quintessentially English and lugubrious he was sort of funny literary Eric Morecambe. He was the head of library services at Hull University and remained there surrounded by a moat of devoted staff until retirement (even though a successful poet.)
I don’t read poetry except his. As someone who is wary of constant happiness I can relate to his poems. They walk a tightrope with nature, love and beauty on one side and sorrow, reality and pessimism on the other. Aren’t sideways movements between the outposts of sadness and happiness part of the human condition? If aliens visited Earth and asked what it was like to be human you could point them to Larkins’s books and say, “That’s what the human condition is like.” He’s probably Britain’s best loved and most quoted poet as there’s no getting lost in a cloud of fog as with Wordsworth stuff. He only produced four slim volumes of poetry.
I arrived at Hull and wasn't sure what to expect - industrial-looking docks smelling of fish? I remember watching a documentary about Kenneth Williams and a fan appeared at the stage door and chatted with him. When he asked where she lived she replied Hull. “Do you work in the gutting sheds?” he asked her...so I expected industrial estates populated with gutting sheds (Kenneth Williams and Hull woman continued to correspond for many years.)
The Sat Nav took me to the University with a moat of students milling around. It was here that Larkin headed up the library services and, despite roaring success with his books, he remained in his job until retirement. He used a battery of secretaries to fend off fans telephoning or mailing him.
I took a wrong turning and as I was backing up to turn around spotted a large sign, “The Larkin Building.”
I wanted to do things in order so I first drove to:-
32, Pearson Park
Larkin lived in the top flat in perfect purdah for nearly 20 years and needed the nights free to write the poems. I can identify with him; I'm an old fossil who dislikes change mostly - so I was glad to note the outside hadn’t been modernised. He lived here without central heating, fitted carpets and double glazing (he washed at the sink.) He liked the sense of exile and quiet this flat afforded (he pretend not to hear the doorbell) and kept the world at bay.
Though he lived alone he had two girlfriends who both knew of each other. He juggled Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan for nearly two decades. Both remained single, knew the score, and were devoted enough to him to tolerate the situation. However it was Monica, a university lecturer who had the bracing mental machinery to engage him (he wrote 7,500 pages of letters and cards to her from 1946 to 1985.) He didn’t dedicate any of his books to anyone but he prefaced one “For Monica.”
The university owned the flat and Larkin was driven out after nearly 20 years in exile. By this time he had earned good money from his poems and moved to the posher Newland Park district. So I drove to...
The flat in more recent days…
…then I drove on to….
105, Newland Park
I found this detached home in a quiet blossomy, tree-lined lane. I didn’t see a soul but guessed eyes were watching from chintz curtains as I took photos. Unlike the Pearson Park home this one had undergone modernisation.
It was here Larkin lived mostly alone, frightened of living and scared of death. He wrote very little poetry after the age of 55. He seemed numb to life, had to refuse the post of Poet Laureate and seemed infused with the melancholy that bled into most of the poems. As an entrenched atheist it haunted him that life is rented and fleeting and nothing cares for us.
As a life-long bachelor the unexpected happened: Monica was cut down with shingles that she moved in to he could look after her. She ended up doing the caring though: after years of drinking and smoking Larkin's health was worsening. It was from this house he was taken to hospital in 1985, dying weeks later of throat cancer. His last words to the nurse holding his hand were, “I am going to the inevitable.”
Outside the house looking both ways…
The cemetery was in spring bloom, much smaller than expected. Holding a photo of the simple white grave I walked slowly up and down the stones. Nearby some teenagers were lying flowers around a grave so I returned to my car for a sandwich until they departed. When I got out I needn’t search further. There was a chap taking a photo of a grave and I guessed Larkin was buried there.
The chap was Michael. He lived in Ireland and was visiting friends in Lincoln. He showed me a book of Larkin’s poems in his pocket and said he had to visit “the master”. I did a bit of test on him and asked if he knew that Monica and Maeve were also buried in the cemetery. He passed the test, knew of them and we split up to search for them, each shouting over the other if one was found. He found one, I found the other.
It was only when on his deathbed that Monica and Maeve were formally introduced to one another. Though they had known of one another for many years there was no hostility. As you can see from the location of the graves both women are about 20 metres from Larkin. In real life they’d formed a love triangle and now the grave stones formed one too (the same mason had made all three stones.)
When Michael left I had the cemetery to myself, put in my ear plugs and meandered around. I listened to Philip Larkin reading his own poetry. I’ve walked through much countryside with this man’s voice dipping into my soul for hours and hours. Most people don’t use the ‘repeat’ facility on their mp3 player but I’ve had this man reading this poetry on 'repeat'.
I stood on the mowed grass under which his bones lay. It was eerie listening to his relaxing assuring tones. One of his lines was “Being brave lets no-one off the grave.” So right, I thought.
This was Philip’s office at the library…