Philip Larkin at 100: ‘We all hate home’

Philip Larkin, born one-hundred years ago today, was a librarian at the University of Hull in the north of England. Some may celebrate him for that job—he was a great librarian and administrator and oversaw the library’s expansion—but most celebrate him for his poetry.

He was a major poet; thirty-seven years after his death, he is consistently ranked among the top ten post-war English writers by other writers. His name tops most contemporary polls as Britain’s favorite poet. Many of his lines live on in our hearts and memes: “Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love,” from “An Arundel Tomb” is quoted on his plaque in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey:

Born in Coventry, he studied at Oxford University and became best friends with Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest; he contributed to and helped edit Amis’ first novel, Lucky Jim, which launched Amis on his own career in literature.

In 1955 Larkin accepted the position at Hull, far away from the London literary scene, and he never left. He rarely saw London or Oxford, even more rarely spent time abroad, never set foot in Canada or America. His summer vacations were usually further north from Hull: annual summer weeks with one girlfriend, Monica Jones, at her cottage in Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, other trips to Scotland. Even his lifelong friendship with Amis was a largely epistolary one: at Larkin’s funeral in 1985 near Hull, Amis was heard to mutter more than once, “Why have I never been here?”

In 1964, a television program profiled Larkin, who had by then published two novels and three volumes of poetry and was already ranked among the best writers of his generation. Asked about his affiliation with Hull, he replied, “I never thought about Hull until I was here. Having got here, it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, I think even its natives would say that. I rather like being on the edge of things. One doesn’t really go anywhere by design, you know, you put in for jobs and move about, you know, I’ve lived in other places.”

Even its natives?” Perhaps it is just me, but that phrase rings odd. I lived for several years far away from New Paltz, NY, which I consider home, and when asked about my new neighbors, co-workers, and friends, I never said about my fellow Iowans, “Even the natives” think such-and-such about Cedar Rapids. It is the phrase of someone who built nests for himself but never a home. Even someone who lived in that nest for decades.
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Memorial Day 2022: For Those Left Behind

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Pyle was killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My late father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator who was tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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Michael Lang and Small-Town Fame

So far in my employment history I have had four salaried jobs. Three were the best-paying ones, and at least one of these is the reason my current income, monthly SSD, is as not-horrifyingly tiny as it could be.

My first high-salaried job was in 1997-’98 with a publisher based in Woodstock, NY. Now, for someone like me, a high salary at the time meant more than $30,000 a year. (Sad to say, this amount would still be a high salary for me.) Thus, when I received my first paycheck at this publisher, I “felt wealthy” for perhaps the first and only time in my life.

I lived nowhere near Woodstock, though, so it seemed to me that I needed to open a bank account near where I thought most of my weekday life would be spent. Off I marched at lunchtime to a local bank with a paycheck that felt like it made my wallet bulge. At this point in my life, I think my one previous experience with a new bank account was in elementary school, and in that “bank,” quarters were the largest denomination accepted for deposits.

I explained my plight to a teller and I was directed to a seat, which was another novelty: I’d never sat in bank before. Please understand, in 1997 I was 29, so my naïveté was bizarre and somewhat hard-won.

I was one customer behind someone else who needed to open a bank account that day, so we were seated very close to one another at the desk of the accounts manager who could help us. That someone else was Michael Lang.
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