It’s quite the thing these days, to decide on the Nation’s Favourite. Presumably because the accolade gives authority to familiarity. There is a TV documentary series choosing the Nation’s Favourite Pop Song (Abba, the Bee Gees, etc) and we now know the Nation’s Favourite Bird is the robin.
But the Nation’s Favourite Poet? The Poet Laureate is something of a yardstick, but that is more about informed selection than majority vote. It is something of a relief, then, to learn that Philip Larkin is at last to be acknowledged by Westminster Abbey with a stone in Poets’ Corner because he, above all British post-War poets, is surely the Nation’s Favourite.
Speaking yesterday in Larkin’s old office at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull (Larkin was university librarian there for 30 years), the Dean of Westminster Abbey explained that the hiatus between Larkin’s death in 1985 and the arrival of a memorial stone was because of a predecessor’s anxiety to “wait until a reputation was secure”. He continued by reading an excerpt from Alan Bennett’s diary that slightly shot a hole in this theory.
Writing somewhat grumpily (four years ago) after Ted Hughes got his stony spot at Westminster, Bennett questions why Larkin was, as yet, still unmemorialised. After all, he observed, “many more of Larkin’s writings have passed into the national memory”.
The National Memory. What an intriguing notion, but quite a good litmus test of who should get the Abbey gig. If you were to line up 100 people in your nearest high street and ask them to quote a couple of lines from a Ted Hughes poem, I suspect very strongly that you would be met by blank faces. Great poet and all that. GCSE fodder. Zero position in the National Memory. Whereas Larkin? With his rudely perceptive comments on parenting, his accuracy about sexual relations, Lady Chatterley and the rest – and above all, his acknowledgment of love’s durability? Larkin easily commands the day.
In pictures: Library hotels
In pictures: Library hotels
1/6 Gladstone's Library, Flintshire
Gladstone's Library, Flintshire
Celebrate National Libraries Day with a stay in Britain's only prime ministerial library. It was founded by William Gladstone in 1895, when he was 85; according to legend, he hauled most of his 32,000 books to their new home in a wheelbarrow. While most guests at the wood-panelled library are clergy and academics, Gladstone's is open to tourists too, with 26 bedrooms decorated with literary-themed wallpaper. Guests can even take books back to their rooms. Tomorrow, the library is hosting a talk by Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist.
Church Lane, Hawarden, Flintshire CH5 3DF (01244 532350; gladstoneslibrary.org). Doubles from £90, B&B.
2/6 Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad
Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad
This Indian palace hotel's Imperial Library is a replica of the library at Windsor Castle, with its teak and rosewood walls. It houses rare manuscripts first editions, a collection of Korans and encyclopaedias from the turn of the last century. Even if you read one of the 5,900 titles each day, it would take 16 years to read them all. The 60 bedrooms and suites are decorated with oak wood floors and hand-painted walls.
Engine Bowli, Falaknuma, Hyderabad, India (00 91 40 6629 8585; tajhotels.com). Doubles from R 32,500 (£338), including breakfast.
3/6 Library Hotel, New York
Library Hotel, New York
Each floor of this 60-room Manhattan hotel has been assigned a category of the Dewey Decimal System and kitted out accordingly. The eighth floor, for example, is "Literature" with rooms entitled "Fairy Tales", "Poetry", and even "Erotic Literature". All rooms come with a range of books, but bibliophiles can also hunker down in the communal Reading Room or the rooftop Poetry Garden, which offers spectacular views of New York – if they're not too engrossed in a novel, that is.
299 Madison Avenue, New York, US (001 212 983 4500; libraryhotel.com). Doubles from $232 (£154), B&B.
4/6 Ham Yard, London
Ham Yard, London
This hip Mayfair hotel opened last summer, with an elegantly decorated reading room full of books about the capital's history, art, culture and politics, as well as prize-winning literature. The walls of the library are lined with patterned fabric, and there is a large honesty bar where guests can pour themselves a nightcap or cocktail before they settle down with a tome. The bedrooms are full of colour and texture, with floor-to-ceiling warehouse style windows looking out across the Soho skyline or interior courtyard.
1 Ham Yard, London W1D 7DT (020 3642 2000; firmdalehotels.com). Doubles from £408, including breakfast.
5/6 Andaz, Amsterdam
A former humdrum public library close to the centre of the Dutch capital has been transformed into a dramatic space. Each of the 122 rooms is individually designed, with roots in the Amsterdam tradition – full of quirky features such as large pictures of fish on the walls and sci-fi-style orb lamps. Some have private balconies with canal views. The Andaz also has a collection of video art, showcased in various parts of the hotel and on a special channel on guestroom TVs.
Prinsengracht 587, Amsterdam, Netherlands (0031 20 523 1234; andaz.hyatt.com). Doubles from €326, excluding breakfast.
6/6 The Library, Koh Samui
The Library, Koh Samui
The all-white reading room of this beachfront Thai resort is nicknamed The Lib, and houses not only an impressive collection of books but also DVDs and CDs. The room's floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the hotel's red-tiled swimming pool and the Gulf of Thailand beyond. The bedrooms and suites, split across 26 separate "cabins", are similarly minimalist and modern, with bright colour schemes softened by rustic wooden shutters and bamboo writing desks.
14/1 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach, Bo Phut, Koh Samui, Surat Thani, Thailand (00 66 77 422 767; thelibrary.co.th). Doubles from 19,576THB (£397), including breakfast.
It’s the combination of rhyme, popular culture, and what some might call an Eeyorish sensibility that has endowed Larkin’s work with an almost unshakeable place in the National Memory. In spite of everything. The awkward biographical details, the casual racism revealed by the letters, the uneasy sexual relations (basically, loads of mistresses), and the fact that Larkin is, quite frankly, a difficult human being to admire. But the poems are not.
And this is Poets’ Corner. There is a reason why poems end up residing in the National Memory. It’s because they have been found to say something that is important, and true, and meaningful, and something that contributes to human understanding.
As his biographer (and former Poet Laureate) Andrew Motion has pointed out, his work is often “beautiful and true, and very often unforgettable as a result”. And so of the thousands of people walking through the Abbey, quite a number will soon go to Poets’ Corner to seek Larkin’s stone. And when they see it, their hearts will leap. Will they leap in a different way to the leap they may feel by seeing (say) the recently installed stone to David Frost? No offence to Frosty, but probably, yes. He has his place in the National Memory bank too, but in a slightly different aisle.
I must declare an interest here. As chair of Hull City of Culture, which thunders into the city in 2017, I have stood up many times and introduced a promotional film that kicks off with Sir Tom Courtenay heart-stoppingly reciting Larkin. I have read and re-read the poems and see how brilliantly and sensitively they depict the city, its buildings, its rivers and bridges.
In Hull’s Paragon Station there is a giant statue of Larkin running to catch a train, leaving lines of his poems engraved on the forecourt behind him. He always suggested he worked and lived in Hull because he wanted to escape, and the easternmost corner of Yorkshire seemed like a good place to do that. But the city became something of a muse to him, its unorthodox nature perhaps appealing to his innate anti-establishment zeal (he shunned both the Laureateship and an academic post at Oxford), its rivers, domes and big skies inspiring him to write his best work.
When people find out why I have become a regular commuter to Hull, they immediately tell me how much they love the work of Philip Larkin. Grayson Perry confided in me that Larkin’s Collected Poems has a permanent spot on his bedside table. Yesterday as the news spread that Larkin was to be memorialised in the Abbey (the Nation’s Favourite Gothic Church, perhaps), #larkin started trending on Twitter. The stone will be unveiled in 2016. The Dean says that if there is a line from the poems on the stone, there should be no question of which one it ought to be. No, not the rude one. As if! Surely “What will survive of us is love.”Reuse content