Few poets shunned the limelight quite like Philip Larkin, who rejected the Laureateship and refused to appear on television. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – his gloomy and reclusive public persona, his obsession with mortality and the meticulous chronicling of life’s dark corners of quiet despair, his popularity remains undimmed.
The city of Hull, where he spent more than three decades in splendid isolation as university librarian, will later this year honour its most celebrated modern literary son with a five-month festival marking the 25th anniversary of his death.
Among the main attractions for the event, Larkin25, will be an interactive tourist trail to give lovers of his poetry a greater insight into the everyday places which inspired his work and fuelled his inimitable scathing wit.
Key upon the route will be Paragon Railway Station, where the poet starts his southward journey one “sunlit Saturday” for “The Whitsun Weddings”, recently voted Britain’s most popular poem. In December the celebrations will culminate with the unveiling of a statue of Larkin, mirroring that of his friend Sir John Betjeman, at the opposing terminus at London’s Kings Cross.
Fans will be encouraged to visit the Brynmor Jones Library where he worked and which inspired his meditation on paid employment in “Toads”. Another stopping-off point will be the university lodgings in the top floor of the house in Pearson Park where Larkin resided for 17 years, and which gave him the “High Windows” for the title of his last major collection.
Also included will be the modern home in Newland Park where he lived from the mid-70s and which he famously hated, and also the home of his former lover Maeve Brennan. Those seeking a more prosaic insight can visit the pubs where he drank and listened to jazz, the shops where he bought his weekly groceries and even the site of his favourite Chinese restaurant.
The trail will take fans out to the surrounding countryside of the East Riding and ancient churches of outlying villages which he visited on his bicycle.
Graham Chesters, a retired professor of French at Hull University who chairs the Philip Larkin Society, said there would be no attempt to hide from the controversy that tainted the poet following his death. Accusations of misanthropy, racism and misogyny greeted the publications of Larkin’s personal letters and the official biography by future poet laureate Andrew Motion. The poet and academic Tom Paulin described the letters as “a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became”.
Professor Chesters said he hoped the event would invite new readers to look afresh at the poet and be inspired. “The idea behind Larkin25 is to engage as many people as possible of all ages and all ethnic groups in creativity. We are not just saying look at Larkin the poet. He wrote novels, he was a great jazz lover and reviewer, he was a photographer and a great doodler.”
In addition to the trail, which will feature MP3 recordings of poetry readings and letters read by the author, there will be exhibitions of Larkin’s landscape photographs and his sketches, a major new play based on his life and work to be performed at the Hull Truck Theatre.
Prof Chesters concedes that Larkin, whose complex personality and deep shyness was obscured behind an outward display of bluffness, might have been nonplussed at the attention. “I suspect he would be relatively unimpressed by the idea and that is a question we have been asking ourselves,” he said. “He didn’t have much time for anywhere and in his correspondence he does wonder why he is in Hull. But in many ways it was ideal for a poet.”
Yet for all his diffidence Larkin wrote evocatively about the city describing the “end of the line sense of freedom” he enjoyed and the port’s “sudden elegancies”. In the poem “Here” he describes the “filthy-smelling pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum, tattoo-shops, consulates, the grim head-scarfed wives”.
Larkin died from oesophagus cancer in 1985, aged 63, and is buried in the municipal cemetery. Jean Hartley, his former publisher at The Marvell Press and whose book Philip Larkin’s Hull and East Yorkshire provided the template for the trail, recalls him fondly.
“He was the funniest man that I have ever known. He was hugely entertaining. He used to cycle up to our house most Saturday afternoons having done a great big shop with this great haversack on his back and we would spend the afternoon in uproarious laughter before he would cycle home,” she said.
“He liked the place because it was a bustling town but also very remote with all this lovely countryside around. He had some very meaningful relationships and a very big circle of friends.
“Anyone who takes the trail will see a lot of Hull that they would not normally see and hopefully bring them much closer in touch with Philip and the places that he visited and loved.”