World Poetry Day - Philip Larkin in Coventry

 

One unintended but happy outcome of delaying the start of our City of Culture year is that its final few months will now coincide with the centenary of Philip Larkin, one of the city’s most celebrated literary talents.

Born and brought up in Coventry in the 1920s and 30s, Larkin would later live and work in Hull – the last city to enjoy the title of UK City of Culture in 2017. It’s a coincidence that would probably have amused the poet himself – at least, according to Philip Pullen, a Trustee of the Philip Larkin Society. Philip is also Chair of Larkin100, a charitable organisation established to promote the centenary in 2022. 

In recent months, he’s been investigating Larkin’s teenage years in Coventry for an exciting project which we hope to be revealing more about very soon. In the meantime, to mark World Poetry Day, we asked him to tell us a bit about the writer’s early life here and how it helped to shape his later career.

Philip Larkin grew up in Coventry in the lead-up to the Second World War, at a time when the city was experiencing rapid social and economic change.

He was also living in a family full of tensions: he had an over-powering father, who was the City Treasurer and whose politics were distinctly to the right, and a timid and rather subservient mother, whose life was constrained in so many different ways.

All of these things shaped his life quite fundamentally. It’s likely that many of the pressures he felt himself under and the ways in which he sought to express and deal with them will be familiar still to a lot of young people living in the city today.

If we accept the old adage ‘the child is father to the man’ there are certainly ways in which the young Larkin’s experiences shaped his life forever. He was shy, short-sighted, developed a pronounced stammer which, though he learned to control it, never quite went away.

Larkin started his formal schooling at Cheshunt Preparatory School on Mason Road, and subsequently attended both the King Henry VIII junior school and senior schools. His experience of school was generally positive, although he didn’t do particularly well academically until nearing his entry into the sixth form. The only subject he excelled in throughout his schooling was, not surprisingly, English.

That said, he did experience some bullying at school, particularly in the early years, and it was something that both he and his mother would remember many years afterwards during a conversation about their days in Coventry, which Larkin tape-recorded. But he was always able to fight back using his intellect, his creativity and his ability to make people laugh.

His passion for writing definitely began very early in his life. His home was full of good books and his father had very modern tastes in literature, being particularly keen on writers such as DH Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy. All of this rubbed off on his son.

By the age of 12 or so he was writing pieces for the school magazine, some of which were quite subversive and satirical. As his first biographer, Andrew Motion pointed out, a lot of his writing at this time was a kind of ‘secret revolt’.

He also had a wonderfully idiosyncratic and expressive dress sense, with a love of colourful clothes, including a pair of red trousers which he proudly wore as a university student at Oxford. When he came to Hull in 1955 as the University Librarian, the library staff were impressed by the colourful socks he wore as well as the bright coloured shirts and ties that became a trademark.

Not untypically, perhaps, Larkin the teenager became increasingly critical of his family and of home life, even though both parents appeared to dote on him. Writing to a friend as a 17-year-old, Larkin described life at home as ‘dull, pot-bound and slightly mad’. When I look at things he said at the time, I really don’t feel that Larkin’s attitudes as a young person are all that far removed from what many Coventry teenagers might be going through today; he just found a particularly powerful way of expressing it.

I think his early life in Coventry was important to him in lots of ways and it certainly inspired him to write. Even though he claimed in one poem that his childhood was a ‘forgotten boredom’, it wasn’t really the case. Some aspects of growing up in Coventry found their way directly into the things he wrote about. Apart from the poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’ which, of course, includes the line, ‘Why Coventry! […] I was born here’, both of his early published novels owe a direct debt to the city.

In the first one, Jill, Larkin depicts a journey to see the bomb damage in the fictional town of Huddlesford, which is based on his own first-hand experiences of travelling back to Coventry from Oxford in the aftermath of the Blitz. Parts of the setting of his second novel, A Girl in Winter, are clearly based on the pre-war Coventry city centre which Larkin knew so well.

As an adult, he revisited the city on a number of occasions, sometimes accompanied by his widowed mother, who lived in Loughborough. On one occasion, he took photographs of the building work for the new Cathedral from the top of the old Cathedral tower, as well as some really striking shots of the Precinct.

Larkin took on the responsibility for disposing of the old family house in Manor Road which, after the war, had a compulsory purchase order placed over it. It was finally demolished in 1977 to make way for the inner ring road.

He also attended a couple of formal events in the Cathedral, receiving the Coventry Award of Merit in 1978 and an honorary D.Litt. from Warwick University in 1972.

Had he been around to see both Hull and Coventry be named UK City of Culture, I think he would have been highly amused and probably more than a little scornful! To be fair, he tended to present a negative image of everywhere that he ever lived, particularly at first sight, but that impression usually mellowed over time.

When he first went to Hull, he described it as being ‘a ghastly place, as bad as Coventry’. But that viewpoint soon became qualified by other more positive statements, and the same is true of Coventry. I think, he would certainly recognise particular qualities that make both Hull and Coventry very worthy winners of the title of ‘City of Culture’

In the preface to an anthology of Hull poetry, Larkin described the city as one which had ‘its own sudden elegances’, a place where people ‘are slow to leave and quick to return.’ Hopefully, people will discover that about Coventry too.

What words of wisdom might he have had for us in these strange and difficult times? Personally, I don’t think we need to go further than the final lines of his poems ‘The Mower’:

‘We should
Be careful
Of each other, we should
Be kind
While there is still time’

The Larkin Society recently shared this as a tweet, and it received over 50,000 impressions in no time at all. Like so many of Larkin’s poems, it connects so directly with people’s everyday lives. This, I think, is why his poems continue to resonate with us today.