Five Fascinating Facts about Philip Larkin
Interesting facts from Larkin’s life
1. Philip Larkin wrote a number of stories featuring girls at boarding school. While he was completing his English degree at St John’s College, Oxford in 1943, Larkin started writing stories and poems – and even a whole novella, Trouble at Willow Gables – under the pseudonym Brunette Coleman. The stories very much parody girls’ boarding-school stories of the time, which Larkin considered too flat and passionless when it came to treating the awakening of romantic and erotic feelings (specifically, homoerotic feelings) in adolescent girls. As Larkin put it to a letter to a friend in June 1943, ‘I am spending my time doing an obscene Lesbian novel in the form of a school story.’ In fact, these stories may not have been conceived as mere salacious entertainments for Larkin’s male friends. James Booth, in his biography of Larkin, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, has argued that writing the Brunette Coleman stories helped Larkin to find his feminine voice – something that would counter the more bluff masculine persona seen in many of his poems.
2. Larkin and Kingsley Amis always signed off their letters to each other with the word ‘bum’. Larkin and Amis met at the University of Oxford in the early 1940s, and became firm friends, united by their sense of humour as well as their literary ambitions (not to mention their dislike of the medieval literature they were made to study, and their hatred of J. R. R. Tolkien’s lectures on the subject). Amis wanted to be a poet but ended up being a novelist (launching a successful career with his 1954 novel Lucky Jim, whose hero is loosely based on Larkin himself), while Larkin, conversely, dreamed of being a great novelist but ended up as a poet. Larkin himself defined the distinction between the novelist and the poet as follows: ‘If you tell a novelist, “Life’s not like that”, he has to do something about it. The poet simply replies, “No, but I am.”‘ He also memorably said, ‘The notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at their ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon.’
3. Philip Larkin was a huge Beatrix Potter fan. This may come as a surprise, given Larkin’s lugubriousness, but he and long-term girlfriend Monica Jones shared an intense fondness for Beatrix Potter’s tales of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy Bunny, and Mrs Tiggywinkle. And, much as Larkin would sign off his letters to Kingsley Amis with ‘bum’, he would frequently address Monica, in his letters to her, as ‘Bun’ – a reference to Beatrix Potter’s bunnies. Larkin would also often illustrate his letters to Monica, as well as the manuscripts for his poems, with drawings of bunny rabbits. He also, of course, wrote a memorable poem about the rabbits killed in the 1950s in order to control the population in Britain. You can read ‘Myxomatosis’ here.
4. Larkin used to mow the lawn wearing a D. H. Lawrence T-shirt. This surprising fact from Larkin’s life appeals to us here: because of the connection between two major twentieth-century writers, because the image of Larkin wearing a T-shirt of any kind seems odd. Larkin bought the T-shirt when he opened an exhibition about Lawrence’s life and work at Nottingham University in 1980. Lawrence’s depictions of mining communities would help to inspire Larkin’s poem ‘The Explosion’. And, on the topic of mowing the lawn, Larkin would write about this in his late poem ‘The Mower’, about his accidental killing of a hedgehog; Larkin the Lawrence-clad grass-cutter would also, of course, write a poem called ‘Cut Grass’.
5. He thought he was going to lose his job as a librarian in 1958 – because of his love of pornography. Larkin was a librarian as well as a writer – and so joined a long line of distinguished authors who have also lent books as well as written them. Jacob Grimm, Casanova, David Hume, Jorge Luis Borges, Archibald MacLeish, and Lewis Carroll also worked as librarians. In 1958, as recorded by James Booth in his Larkin biography, Larkin received a letter from the Vice Squad informing him that he had been identified as the subscriber to a pornographic magazine, and could face prosecution. In fact, the letter turned out to be a hoax, sent by his friend (and fellow porn-enthusiast) Robert Conquest. When he was first included in Who’s Who, in 1959, Larkin listed his profession as ‘librarian’ on the basis that a man is what he is paid to do. Poetry was secondary to that.
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Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).