My days in the slips with Larkin, poet and fielder

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I WAS out in South Africa recently, that beautiful but troubled country, and when people learnt that I was from England, they all turned to me eagerly and asked the same question - yes, whether they were white or black, or Afrikaner and slightly grey, or deeply suntanned and in the first stages of skin cancer, they all wanted to know the selfsame thing: What was Philip Larkin really like, then?

I think they were referring to the rather confused rumours that had come out of England following the recent publication of Larkin's life, and his letters, and his phone calls and his library reminders, not to mention a television programme that set out to prove that Larkin had probably fought on the German side during the war. They were rather fascinated by the idea of our Poet Laureate (in all but name) being a fascist, racist, anti-feminist pig, and pestered me for details of his interesting curriculum vitae.

I did not satisfy their rude curiosity, of course. It goes against the grain for a journalist to divulge valuable and significant facts if he is not being paid to do so - in fact, it goes against the grain to divulge valuable and significant facts even when he is being paid to do so. But it has occurred to me since my return that I must be one of the few writers who has not offered his thoughts on 'the Philip Larkin I knew', so I would like to break my silence today.

My main contact with Philip Larkin, or Philip as I called him (to avoid confusing him with the Duke of Edinburgh, whom we always called 'Duke'), was on the cricket field. We were members of the same Lord's Librarians team, this being an offshoot of the famous Lord's Taverners, but confined to people who had run libraries, or owned them, or owed so much money in library fines that they had to do anything the library asked them to do, which was my case with the London Library, an episode over which I prefer to draw a veil.

We were both slip fielders, and I may say that poetry's gain was cricket's loss, for Philip was one of the finest natural slip fielders it has been my good fortune to meet. A lithe, athletic body with reflexes that would have flattered a West Indian belied a lugubrious, owlish face. Many were the times I would raise my hand as a ball whistled past me, only to turn and see it nestling safe in Philip's cupped palm.

'Got you, you little bugger]' he would shout in his somewhat outspoken way, and the crestfallen batsman would creep off, never stopping to consult the umpire.

We would have long hours of reminiscence in the slips, especially when his old friend Sir Kingsley (then plain Kingers) Amis was in the gully.

One thing which tickled them was the elaborate deception that Larkin had practised in order to invent a family. He came, in fact, from a rather happy-go-lucky family of Larkins somewhere in Kent and often chuckled when telling us about 'Pop' Larkin's hair-raising exploits, but in public he had invented a dour mother and father who were the bane of his existence. He even wrote to his fictional 'mother' once or twice a week. Occasionally he would read us these letters and have us in fits of laughter, which we always tried to coincide with the delivery of a fast bowler.

But most of the time we talked about jazz, which was the first love of all of us. Once, I remember, I had put forward my theory that all trumpeters in jazz start singing sooner or later in order to ease the strain on their embouchure or chops, as they call it in jazz. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Henry 'Red' Allen - all clutched at the mike whenever possible. Even Kenny Ball did.

'What about pianists, then?' said Amis. 'They disprove your rule, surely? No strain involved in being a pianist, but they sing just as much as trumpeters. Fats Waller, Earl Hines, not to mention Nat 'King' Cole, who actually gave up piano playing to sing. Go on, name one great jazz pianist who never sang.'

There was a short pause, and then Larkin said loudly: 'Duke]'

'Yes?' said the Duke of Edinburgh, who was fielding at mid-wicket.

'Not you,' said Philip Larkin. 'Duke Ellington]'

I don't think the Duke ever quite understood why, at that point, all three of us went off into such peals of laughter that the batsman had to ask us to pipe down.

Tomorrow: how Philip Larkin made sporting history by being sent off the cricket field for making sexist remarks.

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