Belfast Telegraph

Winifred Dawson: The Belfast librarian at Queen's University who inspired an epic love story

By Mike Gilson

Sorry to return to one of my favourite subjects, but I've just noticed an obituary tucked away in one of the newspapers. It's for Winifred Dawson, who has died aged 85.

Winifred used to be a library assistant at Queen's University, Belfast in the 1950s. It was there that her wide, round eyes set in open, slightly melancholic face caught the attention of the man who would go on to be one of the greatest English poets of all time.

Philip Larkin fell in love instantly with Winifred, who inspired five of his best poems. How beautiful you were, he wrote of her, and near and young.

Larkin was librarian at Queen's at the time and the city was about to help him find his muse. But this isn't about one of my all-time heroes, as out of the strong came forth sweetness, so from a curmudgeonly, often objectionable, Eric Morecambe lookalike came words of beautiful simplicity, but timeless profundity.

No, this is about unrequited love. Winifred was Larkin's "sweet girl graduate". He pined for her and, though they were very close, that was about it.

For Winifred that was enough, but not so Philip. He Hears That His Beloved Has Become Engaged, one of the poems he wrote about her, is a pretty strong clue.

While he had a string of lovers, belying his unpromising exterior, Winifred remained in his heart, tantalisingly unwinnable.

I have, he wrote to her, dozens of happy memories which, like pressed flowers, I can spend winter arranging.

The rest of us may not have the power of language to express it like that, but as I read Winifred's obituary it struck me that most of us have felt what Larkin did, the pang for the loves we never had, but cannot forget.

I wonder if this is more a male thing, but I'm not sure. Is it men who moon over the unhaveable while women get on with life? I don't know.

When I was a teenager, I spent ages acting the fool outside an astonishingly pretty girl's house in my neighbourhood, pulling wheelies on my bike and overhead kicks with a ball as a preamble to having the nerve to ask her out. Her little polite giggled "No" stays with me to this day.

I doubt she thought about me from the moment I was so sweetly crushed. Winifred went on to have three children from a marriage that eventually failed and an astonishingly full life.

Immortalised by a great poet, she gave back, too, rarely missing a meeting of the Larkin Society and giving public readings of his poems.

She remained affectionate and in awe of his talent until her end. There was love but of a different kind than Larkin longed for.

It strikes me that this little love story is universal even if this one is adorned (in Lines On A Young Lady's Photograph Album) with lines like this:

It holds you like a heaven, and you lie

Unvariably lovely there,

Smaller and clearer as the years go by.

We all have our Winifreds, I guess.

Arranging our own "pressed flowers" is part of making us who we are.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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