TO HULL AND BACK

Cover - CopyConsidering the vast personality chasm between them during their lifetimes, there’s an irony to the fact Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes have been involuntary united in the afterlife by finding themselves on the hit-list of the permanently offended, those fanatical rewriters of history who are determined to find fault with any revered figures of the past who don’t reflect their contemporary dogma back at them. Mind you, both Larkin and Hughes had their detractors when they were alive and kicking. The latter was targeted by extreme activists of the feminist persuasion, convinced he drove his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, to an early grave – despite the fact the troubled Plath had attempted suicide ten years before she succeeded, and at a time when she had yet to meet her future husband. Hughes became Poet Laureate back when it was a job for life, though he only replaced Larkin’s friend John Betjeman in 1984 because first choice Larkin had turned down the honour; as it turned out, Larkin himself died just a year after Betjeman, so it was probably just as well the post went to the man Larkin referred to as ‘The Incredible Hulk’.

Criticism of Philip Larkin in his lifetime tended to be criticism of his actual poetry; misreading of this led to the man himself being (inaccurately) portrayed as a miserable curmudgeon. It was only when his private letters were published several years after his death that the more familiar criticism of the kind that is levelled at him with more ferocity today emerged. He’s considered ‘problematic’ because he’s viewed as right-wing, racist and misogynistic. As far as being right-wing goes, it is true that his father – who was extremely right-wing – was a fan of Adolph and went so far as to take his young son on a tour of Nazi Germany before the War, even attending the Nuremburg rallies. Yet, one of the curious ironies of Larkin’s life is that his private grumblings about ‘immigrants’ went hand-in-hand with his passionate love of Jazz and its practitioners, most of whom were black. The record he said he’d rescue from the waves on ‘Desert Island Discs’ was by Bessie Smith.

Similarly, his allegedly ‘sexist’ attitude towards women derives largely from his fondness for soft porn revealed in his published letters, yet this accusation is contradicted by the fact he loved women so much that at one time he had three on the go; and one of this trio, university lecturer Monica Jones, was the longest love of Larkin’s life. Their relationship spanned almost 40 years. Despite their intellectual and emotional compatibility, the only time they actually lived together was during the last couple of years of Larkin’s life, when he cared for Monica following a spell she’d had in hospital. For a man who physically resembled a gawky Eric Morecambe, Larkin evidently possessed an abundance of charm and charisma that attracted women, something that the caricature of him as a grumpy old git would have negated were it true. I suppose one could say conducting three simultaneous affairs doesn’t necessarily hold him up as ideal husband material, but all of Larkin’s faults and foibles when it comes to the three factors that remain sticks to beat him with simply show him for what he was – a human being capable (as are we all) of ‘unclean thoughts’. And it is this humanity that comes across so vividly in his verse.

It’s not unreasonable to surmise that one reason why Larkin was sometimes received less than enthusiastically by the literary establishment in his lifetime was the fact he largely shunned the creative cliques of the cocooned capital. Larkin was a poet of the provinces, the finest poetic commentator on the mood and mores of immediate post-war Britain as it existed outside of London. But then, he was a product of the provinces, born in Coventry 100 years ago this month. Once he’d escaped the stranglehold of Auden and Yeats as key influences on his early work, Larkin gradually began to develop a uniquely individual voice that combined the melancholy beauty of a fellow poet like Betjeman with the bleak black comedy of a playwright like John Osborne. His words flow with a literary flourish, but they also speak in simple and often blunt English that anyone born after 1945 can relate to. Indeed, what qualifies Larkin as a poet whose reputation in terms of his art remains so strong is that, along with Betjeman, he’s one of the few poets of recent decades whose lines are routinely quoted by those not necessarily regarded as bookworms.

One of the most quoted is from ‘Annus Mirabilis’, his astute observation on being too old to be a participant in the Swinging decade he just missed out on, something many born on the wrong side of WWII must have mused upon in the 60s – ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me)/Between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles’ first LP’; as he was someone who had to navigate the oppressive etiquette that dictated clandestine courtship in the 1950s, it must indeed have been frustrating to watch a generation emerge who weren’t bound by such rigid regulations. Then of course, there are the infamous opening lines of ‘This Be The Verse’ – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/they don’t mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/and add some extra, just for you.’ A misconstrued poem, certainly; it has nothing to do with the juvenile sensibilities of some anti-parent pop song, but actually offers a sympathetic perspective on how an individual inherits both the good and bad that their own parents themselves inherited. ‘They were fucked up in their turn’, he goes on to say, before concluding, ‘Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.’

His two most famous poems quoted in the previous paragraph were penned in 1967 and 1971 respectively; by the time Larkin was offered the laureateship in 1984, his purple patch had somewhat run dry and he himself felt all his best poems had probably been written. He was also averse to the pressures that being Poet Laureate could possibly heap upon the creative juices, something he expressed to John Betjeman in a profile for the BBC’s ‘Monitor’ series in 1964. The idea of having to compose ‘on demand’ was not something that appealed to him, and even the most devoted disciple of Betjeman or Hughes could hardly claim the two poets’ finest works were the ones they were obliged to write as part of their Laureate duties when responding to a royal event, whether that be a marriage, a birth or a jubilee. Such a duty would have been anathema to Larkin, who recognised the greatest poets created in response to impulsive flashes of inspiration not dictated by outside forces, but by the erratic influence of the Muse. Betjeman also envied Larkin’s day job, that of head librarian at Hull University, a post he accepted in 1955 and held until his death at the age of 63 thirty years later.

His qualifications for the job were past stints working in the university libraries of Leicester and Belfast, but in Hull he found the perfect city for his particular worldview, being situated (as it often feels to its inhabitants) on the edge of the world, with endless grey vistas looking out onto a void where the nearest landmass is Scandinavia. Although already a published author, Larkin felt he needed more to his day than wrestling with the Muse; as he wrote in the poem ‘Toads Revisited’, ‘No, give me my in-tray, my loaf-haired secretary/my shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir/What else can I answer, when the lights come on at four/at the end of another year?’ And his post in Hull was no vanity project; he threw himself into it with gusto and oversaw the reconstruction of the building as well as instigating the installation of a computerised records system years before it became common practice. Perhaps the fact he had a life beyond the written word, one that infused his poetry with such wry observations on the human condition (something that eludes many poets permanently positioned as ‘outsiders’) gave him an accessibility that continues to speak to anyone who acutely feels the limitations of life whilst also seeing the unsung joy it occasionally throws up with the kind of laconic humour entirely absent from those who seek to block, ban, censor, and cancel.

© The Editor

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READ MY LIPS

Self-isolation? They only had to ask and I would’ve gladly provided the expertise; but maybe the Gove suspicion of experts lingers. Last year – or was it the year before? – I went a full week without speaking to another soul in person; and I didn’t even have the flu. It’s a talent of sorts, and one that makes doing what I do that much easier. But it’s been there a long time. The fear that closed schools will naturally entail stay-at-home parents minding the little ones means fewer employees available for the potential coronavirus battlegrounds. How much easier it was for my own parents when my school shut its gates for the actual holidays. They worked; I stayed at home – alone; a younger sibling had to accompany my mother to her workplace, but one of the few advantages of my seniority came into play and I was entrusted with the responsibility of being daytime housekeeper aged ten.

It’s easy to underestimate the expanse of the canvas presented to an imaginative child when he has the whole house to himself from breakfast till teatime; next to being locked overnight in a sweetshop, it’s about as good as it gets. The possibilities certainly seemed endless for me. With little television output and none of those newfangled video-game things to keep me entertained, the normal no-go areas were opened as temporary adventure playgrounds. The greatest battle of WWII never fought spanned several interior continents as the Airfix infantry climbed mountains (the staircase), fired down on the enemy from the hills (the sofa), fought crocodiles in the kitchen sink, waded through father’s Cossack shaving foam cunningly disguised as Arctic snow in the bathroom sink, patrolled thick, dense jungles (mother’s potted plants), and requisitioned the record player in order that Holst’s ode to the Bringer of War could provide a suitable soundtrack.

The dramatic exploits of toy soldiers and their Action Men brothers-in-arms was one outlet; but of more lasting significance were the tape recorder and the pencil-and-paper combo. The tape recorder, enabling the production of DIY TV and radio programmes, was the midwife to the not-so secret identity of Victoria Lucas 38, the reprobate responsible for the likes of ‘Buggernation Street’ and dozens of other wholesome videos that prompted YouTube to place me on their blacklist of demonetised undesirables; the pencil-and-paper combo, on the other hand, eventually led me all the way to this very post. Neither of these modest achievements could have been possible had all that home-alone time been exclusively devoted to kicking a football or riding a bike – both figured, but were secondary pastimes.

Fast-forward to a tacky 80s drinking den-cum-nightclub, the kind of venue where Del Boy and Rodney might have sipped cocktails they imagined made them look sophisticated. T’was there that the four-piece electric band I’d been the frontman of were booked to perform in 1989 – only, the band had collapsed the week before and the gig was honoured with just the two of us: me on vocals and Paul on acoustic guitar. I wore a feather boa. It wasn’t up there with The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but enough friends were dragged along to clap and they did their duty. Somebody saw fit to record it and there still exists, somewhere in my possession, an audio cassette of said performance; I can’t bring myself to listen even 31 years on, but at least it no longer remains the last occasion in which your humble narrator stood before an audience.

It’s been a strange week, mind. At 2.30am on Thursday, I was to be found braving the long-neglected top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, searching for a bag of brown rice that an online recipe reminded me I owned. It was there, but I had to remove all the other half-finished foodstuffs fighting over limited shelf space to get to it – lentils, flour, soya sauce, hundreds-and-thousands, Ovaltine; indeed, all that was missing was that one-time back-of-the-cupboard staple, Bird’s Custard Powder. Alas, like everything else, the brown rice had bypassed its expiry date by at least two years. Items purchased with the optimistic anticipation of future feasts that never happened had met the sad fate that befalls the relegation of a healthy appetite to the lower leagues. It was an oddly melancholy ceremony, rooting through what felt like the belongings of a deceased relative and then binning these now-inedible articles once imbued with the promise of banquets that went uncooked; finally, I was confronted by a shelf that would’ve shamed Old Mother Hubbard. I said it had been a strange week.

Stranger still, three decades on from a pale-skinned Shirley Bassey and his acoustic sidekick, the week began with yours truly standing up and reciting a trio of self-penned poems before an audience that applauded. And I didn’t even know any of them. The venue was a local arts/community centre I only realised existed this year, and it was hosting the monthly event that is known in poetic circles as an ‘open mic night’ – i.e. anyone can get up and read aloud something they’ve written if they get their name down in time. I was just a spectator last month – my first visit; but I wasn’t intimidated, the atmosphere felt welcoming, and I figured I could do it. Therefore, this month, I got there early and vowed to do it. So I did.

Pre-match preparation focused on both the right poems and the right voice. The latter was finalised via recording several poems as though broadcasting them on the Third Programme; it was important to me to ensure my diction was top notch and that every word was clearly heard. Some poems are better read in the head than read out loud, and it was through recording and listening back that I discovered which had the best rhythm for a public airing. Content mattered too. I deliberately selected a couple of poems looking back to childhood listening and viewing habits, ones I figured might chime with an audience whose average age appeared slightly more advanced than my own; sandwiched between this pair was one dealing with the annoying habit time has of moving the goalposts of perception – and that’s not a reference to an imaginary collaboration between Aldous Huxley and Gordon Banks.

Having published four collections of poetry in the last couple of years, I had plenty material to choose from – and I must have looked very much the pro, reciting from an actual book rather than the notepads or sheets the other participants clutched at the mic. After two solid decades devoted to prose, returning to verse had been an unexpected response to an emotional crisis that demanded an instant creative response as a means of keeping me sane. I used to write nothing but verse at one time, though most was done with the intention of music being added; it rarely was, and the jottings of the 90s remain buried in a binder. Life experience has promoted me into a different league since then.

After reading my third and final poem, I confessed to the organiser of the event I’d been just a little nervous, though she insisted it didn’t show; she also confirmed my belief that the subject matter of the poems might register with the lives of others, as had a friend who told me she was returned to her classroom in 60s Ireland when she listened to the evocations of my own in 70s England. Reading them aloud was something new, though I’m not getting carried away. I’ve learnt not to cultivate great expectations anymore, and the expulsion of romanticism from my vision means I can see clearly now. An excess of hope only ever spawns false dawns, anyway, so it’s best to resist it. I’ve just finished my first collection of short stories, but I don’t regard myself as the new Roald Dahl; I wrote them because I can’t stop. If people like it, great; if they don’t, I’ll still keep producing it. I’m a one-man cottage industry, and self-isolation comes with the territory – handkerchief or no.

Closedown Poem (BBC2 Revival) from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

© The Editor