Philip Larkin’s Coat of Many Colours.
We do enjoy Alliance of Literary Societies AGM weekends, in that they start out in expectation as little more than a change of scenery, sometimes in a town of little intrigue, and featuring a literary figure of uncertain interest for us. I thought I knew Hull to be a dour, northern town with a smell of fish and of industry in general decline. I knew of Philip Larkin to be a glum, no-nonsense writer and poet, of relatively recent times. Both sets of beliefs were confounded over the 20-22 May 2022 weekend conference.
Firstly, to Kingston-on-Hull (to give it its full name). It turns out that the 2017 City of Culture, rather than being a cruel joke, actually represented a highly beneficial label, providing growth in tourism and activity, generating a lively regeneration. The city continues to see HLF and other grant monies coming its way. On the Saturday morning, before the AGM proper, we heard from Graham Chesters, Chair of the Philip Larkin Society and James Underwood, Researcher at Huddersfield University, and an expert on the Larkin archive, speaking positively about how Hull had used such grant monies to improve its vitality. Amongst the city’s splendid architecture, there are statues to other prominent local figures ̶ Andrew Marvell, William Wilberforce and Amy Johnson – as well as lively and interesting street art.
Then to Philip Larkin. The Larkin archive at Hull University contains many of his manuscripts and includes his correspondence with other literary figures. James Underwood’s keynote lecture was ‘Magic, Meaning and Mystery – Researching the Larkin Archive’. The first M referred to the number of original manuscripts and records, and the magic involved in researching them. The second M was how the documents provide knowledge and understanding of the writer. The Mystery referred to how some unfinished works and correspondence contributed to the greater knowledge of the writer’s psyche. Larkin’s early prose and drama revealed his early life and influences. He records, at 17½ (with Adrian Mole intensity in relation to the fraction’s significance), that he wrote out a manuscript of prose, poetry and drama written up to that point. However, he subsequently revisited this anthology with both pencil and pen, to add sarcastic and stock-taking updates and comments, as his perspectives changed.
Five of Larkin’s earliest works (novellas, essays and poems) were written under the name of Brunette Coleman. Therefore, as a 21-year-old man, he used a heteronym of a 50-year-old, lesbian woman. The first of the five works channelled through Brunette Coleman was Trouble at Willow Gables, a novella that was not particularly well received. The last was Sugar and Spice, a collection of six poems that suggested Larkin (or Coleman) was to be better appreciated for poetry than prose.
Although Larkin destroyed some of his work of the 1940s as well as most of his diaries, he kept his letter correspondence with other literary contemporaries, such as Kingsley Amis, with whom he discussed his emotions and his creation of Brunette Coleman. Larkin died in 1985 and James Underwood maintained that the publication of his correspondence in the 1990s was part of his posthumous downfall: revealing his racism, sexism, strong Thatcherite views and anti-trade union beliefs.
However, his collections of poetry, most notably The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows, continue to grow in reputation and sell in large quantities. James Underwood added that Larkin was important as a librarian and archivist at the University of Hull and that this side of his life should not be disregarded.
In respect of the AGM’s business itself, Linda Curry (John Clare Society) had resigned as Chair at last year’s AGM, when Marty Ross Smith (Johnson Society of Lichfield) took over. The Secretary re-elected is Mark Green (Trollope Society) with Jeremy Mitchell (Edward Thomas Fellowship) as Treasurer. Claire Harman addressed the meeting as ALS President for the last time after five years. She highlighted the library retention campaigns. The ALS is currently looking for a suitable replacement for the President and would welcome any suggestions.
The ALS website is featuring a Society of the Month to help focus on individual society efforts and encourage more membership their way. The AGM finished with the traditional fund-raising raffle, which normally features books and sound recordings of ALS authors. This year there was a donated jacket, possibly owned by Larkin (there was an authenticity letter with it from the donor). Philip Larkin was typically pictured in sombre, black, insurance-manager jackets. The prize one was an orange, green and brown, heavy-checked, wool jacket; far more flamboyant in colour. It may dispel the belief that Larkin was generally dull.
At the end of the AGM there was a walk with Paul Schofield, local historian and tourism guide. This took in the aforementioned statues, much of the Larkin Trail, some of the Fish Trail (26 fish prints in the pavement, one for each letter of the alphabet), but also a number of the 40 giant, sponsored toad designs around the city. Larkin wrote ‘Toads’ and then ‘Toads Revisited’, so they are particularly suited to Hull.
Saturday night saw the group visiting the Larkin-frequented Minerva pub, in the newly developed marina and right on the Humber estuary: a magical area by nightfall. Members carried on their tradition of readings following the evening meal.
On Sunday, the Philip Larkin Society laid on a trip to the Hull University library, with a visit to the art gallery and Larkin’s office. Some Larkin artifacts had been put on display for us, including a well-used ashtray, a caffeine-stained mug and the iconic, thick black glasses. The following walk with local members took in the house he purchased, now privately owned, but complete with plaque and a giant toad on a balcony, painted to look like Larkin. The tour finished at Pearson Park with a look at his previous address, where he wrote High Windows, inspired by his view of people in the park.
The 2023 AGM is to be held over the weekend of 21-23 April at Winchester, hosted by the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship, partly on the campus of St Swithun’s School. We will hopefully be in attendance at the AGM and I plan to wear an orange, green and brown, heavy-checked, wool, Philip Larkin jacket that I won, recently, in a raffle.
Colin & Donna Greatorex