On Philip Larkin's 100th birthday, Stewart Mottram, Senior Lecturer in English Literature reveals new research on his time as head librarian at the University of Hull.
Named Britain’s greatest postwar writer by the Times in 2008, Philip Larkin remains justly celebrated as a wry observer of life’s routines, banalities and quiet poignancies. He was a writer who once spoke of poetry as “enhancing the everyday”.
Yet much of Larkin’s reputation as a great British poet rests on the widely-held assumption that Larkin would have been greater still were it not for the demands of his day job as a librarian at the University of Hull between 1955 and 1985. In truth, there is much in Larkin’s poems and letters to support the view that Larkin was a reluctant librarian.
Now, as we celebrate the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth in 1922, new research at the University of Hull’s Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing reveals Larkin’s dedication for his day job as a librarian at the University of Hull.
The reluctant librarian?
“Work is a kind of vacuum, an emptiness,” Larkin writes in a published letter to his long-term companion, Monica Jones, soon after he arrives in Hull. “God, the people are awful,” (May 9 1955). Nine years later, in the poem Toads Revisited, Larkin finds solace in the soothing routines of his day job. However, he continues to moan to Monica in the early 60s about the “woundy dull” work dinners he is forced to attend (28 November 1963).
Larkin’s reputation as a reluctant librarian is today cast in bronze, by Martin Jennings’ in his statue of Larkin at Hull Paragon Railway Station. In it, the poet is seen dashing for a train to London and fretting, in lines from the The Whitsun Weddings, about being “late getting away” from work.
Yet, while there is evidence to suggest Larkin found his work as a librarian distracting and dull, we must guard against taking what he says in his poems and published letters at face value.
Larkin confesses, in an unpublished letter to Monica Jones, which now resides in Hull’s university archives, that “my remarks about myself are not very trustworthy”, and “are invariably designed to conceal rather than reveal” (June 1 1951).
This suggestion that Larkin’s private letters are not always reliable finds echoes in the words of Larkin’s contemporary, the Hull academic John Saville, whose correspondence with and about Larkin survives in the university archives. Writing to the Guardian in a letter published on October 20 1999, Saville notes the disjunction between the views Larkin expresses in “private letters” and his “courteous and helpful” demeanour as a librarian.
Saville draws on his working relationship with Larkin for three decades to argue that Andrew Motion, in his 1993 biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, “pays too little attention to Philip’s working life as a serious and conscientious librarian”.