Poetry with a hint of Eastern promise

"It's certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization" Philip Larkin - On Books

“It’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization”
Philip Larkin – On Books

I have just returned from the far east. You need to understand, that in making this statement I am not referring to an exotic far away location such as Myanmar or Indonesia, countries often referred to as eastern lands. No, the place to which I refer is still within the bounds of the UK, though the convoluted route to attain this far flung destination makes one feel that it could be far removed from here.

Having thought about this recent journey I realised that the time taken to travel from my Northamptonshire home by train to Hull, on the eastern coast of England, was marginally longer than a recent flight I made to Istanbul. It is hard to find similarities between the magnificent former stronghold of Constantinople that so elegantly forms a link between Europe and Asia, and a far flung English city which takes its name from the river upon which it is located near the mouth of the river Humber. Nevertheless, Hull was my destination and one of the great advantages of spending several hours on a train is the time that can be devoted to working and reading.

Hull and back in a day would normally be a prospect that would fall some way short of filling me with joy. As it happens, on this occasion I was delighted to make the journey to examine a PhD written by an enthusiastic, articulate and interesting young lady from Saudi Arabia, who had conducted an interesting piece of research. The satisfaction of seeing her leave the viva voce examination with a beaming smile and dashing off to telephone her husband and children ensured that I began my return journey in good humour.

I do, however, have to make one small confession about my visit to the University of Hull. This is not an institution with which I am particularly familiar, and one that I am not likely to visit on a regular basis, but having been invited to undertake this particular task, I was eager to arrive early. Thus it was that for a 12.00 pre viva meeting, I arrived at 11.00am in order to fulfil a particular mission.

My interest was not specific to the university building, though if ever the term red brick could be applied to a university, Hull would certainly provide the finest example. I was in fact drawn to the university campus inspired by probably its most celebrated previous member of staff. I refer here not to an eminent researcher or academic, but rather its famous longstanding librarian. Philip Larkin, one of the most respected English poets of the twentieth century was appointed librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and remained in the city until his death in 1985. Whilst the library at Hull is named after a former Vice Chancellor of the university, there is now a Larkin building on the campus.

So it was that on reaching the university my innate curiosity led me straight to the library where Larkin worked for so many years. In all honesty it does not differ greatly from university libraries elsewhere around the world, but there is something about writers and their locations that I cannot resist. This after all is a place where Larkin looked for and found so much inspiration. He was reputedly a somewhat curmudgeonly man, but surely anyone who loved words and books must also have had a gentler side to his soul. Whilst much of his slightly irreverent poetry captures images of people and events, I could not avoid thinking about his Whitsun Weddings collection and the journey that he commenced and describes so vividly from Hull railway station. It is then fitting that on this station today thirty one years after his death, there is a statue (shown at the head of this posting) of Larkin which sees passengers away from Hull just as he departed from that platform so many years ago.

It may be a pointless and rather trivial occupation, visiting places associated with writers, but perhaps there is something in all of us who love words that inspires a nugatory hope that such time frittered away may result in a modicum of talent rubbing off on ourselves. The Indian writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna in his amusing book Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life, describes how a “desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation” has driven him to search for the grave of Boris Pasternak, drink in a favoured haunt of Dylan Thomas, seek out a café in which Naguib Mafhouz regularly passed his mornings and see the words from Ruskin Bond’s Landour Days etched in the landscape of Musoorie

I now discover that a much earlier poet, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) also lived and spent his school years in Hull. Perhaps there is more of the exotic about this far flung corner of the land than I had previously realised.

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Click on the link to hear Philip Larkin Reading The Whitsun Weddings


I Could easily have lost an ear!

These btave women certainly hoped for a better response!

These brave women certainly hoped for a better response!

I usually quite enjoy having my hair cut. It’s true to say that I no longer have the flowing locks of my youth which, though it may be hard for those who have known me only a few years to believe, once tumbled about my shoulders. Indeed I am always pleasantly surprised when visiting the hairdresser’s these days to find that I am not being charged a search fee in order to locate the few wispy strands that remain. None- the –less, the experience of sitting quietly in a chair whilst a proficient lady armed with clippers and scissors does her best to make me look respectable is one that I find satisfyingly soporific.

I am now of an age where my pepper and salt beard (more of the latter than the former these days) requires considerably more taming than the thinning patch atop my head. To put it bluntly, there is no longer any danger of my fringe impeding my vision, and I most certainly need a hat should I ever venture out into bright sunshine, (an event that seems increasingly unlikely as we enter June with temperatures in single degree temperatures).

Sometimes a little frivolous conversation with the lady wielding the scissors is welcome. A chance to view the world through the hairdresser’s eyes, to catch up on the local small town gossip, or to marvel at the latest news of television celebrities whose lives seem miraculously to be passing me by, presents an amusing diversion from the isolated bubble in which I appear to exist. But during my latest visit to the hairdresser’s chair the conversation took a turn which, far from lulling me towards somnambulant reverie almost placed me in mortal danger. (That last sentence is  I’m afraid a shameless example of hyperbole!)

Let me explain. Just in case it may have escaped your attention, which possibly means that you are currently emerging from a coma or have possibly only recently returned from Mars, we in the UK are currently in the ugly grip of referendum fever. Later this month we will be asked to indicate with the simple placing of a cross on a piece of paper, whether we wish to remain within the European Union, or sever our ties with our EU partners. In many ways this is the most important vote that we have been asked to cast in our recent history. Imagine then my horrified reaction on hearing the conversation between the lady who was so carefully attending to my coiffure and a similarly deployed young woman, cutting the hair of a gentleman seated in a chair just a few feet to my right. The dialogue that so violently assaulted my credulity was as follows.

Lady cutting my hair: “Have you decided how you will vote in the referendum?”

Young hairdresser at the next chair: “No, I haven’t given it any thought.”

First lady: “But it‘s very important, you really should think about what you are going to do.”

Young lady: “Oh, I suppose so, but it’s all too complicated. Anyway, I always ask my Dad. Every time I have to vote I ask my Dad. He always tells me who to vote for, and he tells my brother and sister too. He knows about these things, so he tells us and that’s what we do. That way we don’t have to think about these things.”

At this point I could easily have lost an ear! Had my instinct, which at that moment was to leap from the chair, taken over, the scissors that were at that point flying about my head could have inflicted serious harm. Somehow, by sheer willpower I managed to restrain myself from launching from beneath the hairdresser’s gown to cry:

“don’t you know that women lost their lives during their struggle to ensure that you have the right to vote? Have you not heard that Emmeline Pankhurst and her noble army of suffragettes spent time in dank prison cells fighting on your behalf? Are you not aware that Emily Widing Davison threw herself beneath the King’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 and died in pursuit of women’s rights?”

Perhaps this is the action I should have taken, but I didn’t. Sadly, had I done so I suspect that I would simply have become the subject of the latest town gossip to entertain the next customers to the the hairdresser’s domain.

I left the hairdresser’s emporium looking tidier than on my entry. But I also departed in a mood of despondency. Could the future of the country really be determined at the whim of a hairdresser’s father?” Mary Wollstencraft may well be turning in her grave.

I despair!