The Importance of Elsewhere
Philip Larkin sought refuge in Belfast from his Coventry upbringing. The poet's five years at Queen's were his most inspired. It is time that the city honoured him, writes Mike Gilson
Picture the scene. It is the black and white world of 1950. In Belfast, a man takes a short walk to work for his first day. His prematurely balding dome, heavy black-rimmed glasses and grey overcoat give the impression of a man approaching his 40s. He is, in fact, just 28.
He is to begin work as an under-librarian at Queen's University and for the next five years the city and the people who befriend him will help him find his muse.
For the man, looking like a prototype Eric Morcambe, will become one of the greatest English poets of the last 100 years and it will be Belfast that sends him on his way. He is Philip Larkin.
When Larkin arrived in September 1950 he was not well-known as a poet. When he left to take up a post as librarian at Hull University, where he would stay for the rest of his life, one of his most famous poems (Church Going) had been published and the volume of work that was to establish him as a major voice in post-war English poetry (The Less Deceived) was about to be printed.
Those five years at Queen's were fertile ground on which the poet's remarkable voice grew thanks to a happiness he had never before encountered and the refuge Belfast gave him from his past and the stifling conformity of his Coventry parents.
For decades now, he has stood as the quintessential example of English non-conformity and miserablism, glorying in the minutae of life and its interminable rituals.
He has rightly been seen as an inspiration for all manner of cultural misfits, more comfortable with waspishness, rain and ill-health. Kenneth Williams and even Morrissey take a bow.
Witness this in a letter about his first impressions of the people he found in Belfast: "The Irish are rotten with drink in my opinion - drivelling slack-jawed blackguards" and "Belfast is an unattractive city. Oh dear oh dear". Or try this about Queen's and the nature of its professors: "The common room is infested with brash undistinguished young men who turn out to be new professors. This place went to the dogs long ago and now the dogs are coming to it."
Hardly the beginning of a productive relationship one might think. But for Larkin the sharp, often hilariously vicious prose in his letters and diaries is often a mask for shyness and an attempt at keeping distance.
For there were always two sides to him. The curmudgeon, who is nowadays always thought of in monochrome, was also capable of lighting up the day of those he liked. And it was in Belfast that this side of him began to emerge.
Queen's librarian Winnifred Arnott, the subject for years of Larkin's unrequited lust, told how "he brightened all of our lives with his wry comments on daily life and his marvellous collection of faces". Another Belfast colleague spoke of him wearing "flamboyant bow ties, patterned sports jackets, coloured shirts, the sorts of things which weren't stock in trade at the time". In Belfast he started an affair with a married woman - affairs and multiple mistresses were to be a theme of his life, belying the dull exterior he exhibited to the outside world.
He was beginning to experiment. And with the new freedoms he found here came a new sweep and vision to his work. The roots of his poetry in everyday experience (for which he has forever been criticised) layered with the breathtaking beauty of his spare language first flourished in Belfast.
In The Importance of Elsewhere, written after he had left, he gives a clue to what he really felt about the place he called home until 1955.
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.
Of Belfast he continues:
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
In truth, Larkin always loved Northern Ireland, finding it comparatively prosperous to post-war England, and after he left he wrote that it was "extraordinary how at home I felt and how much I disliked leaving". But leave he did to become the bard of Hull, continuing to live a double life as the hermit-like anti-fashion librarian while writing poetry that made the everyday epic, discovering love in the tiniest of spaces.
As the years went by the grey side became darker, collapsing into drunken nights, boorish letters to his pal Kingsley Amis and private right-wingery, racism and mysogyny, not to mention a predeliction for pornography that was obsessive.
Before his lurch into extremism he had always had an interest in politics and certainly half-heartedly and inconsistently backed the Orange side here, once writing that Thatcher had "sold Ulster down the river".
Indeed a poem, unpublished in his day, about an Orange parade called The March Past illustrates the power of Larkin, but also why some critics, especially from the English Left, approach him with caution. While broadly sympathic to the cause he saw in Belfast that day ("out of the street-shadow into the sun, discipline strode, music bullying aside the credulous, prettily coloured crowd") it is on the personal, not the ideological, level that the poem resonates, with its outsider's sense of the frailty of a collective and the clinging on of a community. It is the humanity that wins through.
That dark Larkin, which, those dogmatic critics have argued, destroys his right to be called genius, grew as the muse that he had discovered in Belfast deserted him in his last years in Hull. Just five short volumes of verse span his creative period from the 1930s to 70s, although two novels and much journalism on jazz also join the portfolio.
But what volumes they are. Lines such as "They f*** you up your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do" and "Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was far too late for me) - between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP" have crossed over into popular culture. Constant repetition does not make them any less pithy and daring.
In the end it is the work, not the inconsistent and frankly bleak world view that he took to his grave, which survives. It transcends, making the potential enemy of the man a lover of his poetry.
The evidence? Take just one poem. The Arundel Tomb is written about a grave inside Chichester Cathedral, upon which the sculptured figure of an armour-clad baron is portrayed laying beside his lady wife.
Larkin notices that on one hand the baron's glove is removed so that he can hold for eternity the hand of his spouse as outside "snow fell, undated. Light each summer thronged the glass". And he ends:
Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelity They hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
A man who can write like this should be forgiven the bitterness and rancour of old age for, despite it all, what survives of him, written about in its many complications and guises, is love.
That is why it is important that, near-on 60 years since he came to Belfast, this city does not forget him.
Next year will also be the 25th anniversary of his death from cancer. In Hull the Larkin sleepers are rousing. A group called Larkin25 ( www.larkin25.co.uk ) is mobilising to erect a statue in Hull in tribute to him as well as staging events across the UK. The monochrome man with a technicolour gift is to be rightly celebrated.
In Belfast, we should get in on the act before this city's role in his story is forgotten. It is a excellent opportunity to bring his work to the attention of a new generation.
The man who once told an audience "deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth" would have protested against such nonsense, but we should do it anyway.