Philip Larkin’s Ireland in words and images

The poet paints an unflattering picture of an Orange march and reflects on a changing Dublin in this extract from The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs

August 1969, outside Richard Murphy’s renovated cottage near Westport, Co Mayo. Murphy is on the left, beside Philip Larkin. Monica Jones, the poet’s muse and mistress,on the right. At the front is Charles Monteith of Faber, his publisher, and at the rear is Emily Murphy, daughter from Murphy’s marriage to Patsy Strang, now dissolved

August 1969, outside Richard Murphy’s renovated cottage near Westport, Co Mayo. Murphy is on the left, beside Philip Larkin. Monica Jones, the poet’s muse and mistress,on the right. At the front is Charles Monteith of Faber, his publisher, and at the rear is Emily Murphy, daughter from Murphy’s marriage to Patsy Strang, now dissolved

 

Belfast, he found, suited him very well. The university could claim much more of a genuine academic heritage than Leicester. It was like a provincial version of Oxford but his peers were now junior academics rather than undergraduates. He no longer dwelt in the expectant, intimidating shadow of his late father, and Eva, still in Dixon Drive, Leicester, could rely on Kitty, married and settled ten miles away in Loughborough, for assistance. For the first time in his life he felt independent. He remained in close contact with his friends in Britain, through both visits and correspondence, but at the same time the grey sentry of the Irish Sea secured him against sudden intrusions into his private world.

One cannot overstate the effect that the move to Belfast had on his work – it wrought the transformation of Larkin from frustrated novelist to the finest English poet of the late twentieth century. His first letter from Belfast was to Monica and he dwells on the dreadfulness of his trip, telling of how his train ‘dashed through the weeping quarries of Derbyshire’ to the ‘dusk-ridden ruinous vision of Manchester’.

Tea and ham rolls sustained him during the journey to Liverpool where he walked through ‘endless warehouses’ to board the Ulster Duke, his ferry to Belfast.

On reaching his room in Queens Chambers he documents the dreary interior with ill-disguised glee: ‘. . . this room is grossly under furnished, the lampshade is made of brown paper, the bulbs are too weak, the noise from the trams tiresome, the sixpenny meter for heat will prove expensive, the students ubiquitous . . .’ Anyone familiar with ‘Mr Bleaney’ will by now be awaiting the three-word amalgam of triumph and weary resignation: ‘I’ll take it.’ He would not begin that poem until his move to an equally grim lodging in Hull in 1956, but the 1950 letter to Monica reads as a rehearsal for it.

More significantly the still unpublished poem ‘Single to Belfast’ was begun after Larkin awoke in his cabin on the Ulster Duke and returned to when he settled into his rooms. It is a great pity that his letter to Monica of 1 October and the poem cannot be read as adjacent texts because there are few, if any, examples of such a dialogue between matter-of-fact writing and literary art. The poem (partly reprinted in Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin, but only available in complete form in the Hull archive) distils the sense of anticipation and masochistic glee of the letter into something far less particular but in both we sense that he knows that his journey will be transformative.

the present is really stiffening to past
Right under my eyes,
And my life committing itself to the long bend
That swings me, this Saturday night, away from my midland
Emollient valley, away from the lack of questions,
Away from endearments.
Through doors left swinging, stairs and spaces and faces

He was fascinated by how quickly similarities between Ulster and the world he knew were cut through with equally curious contrasts. ‘Your doctor, your dentist, your minister, your solicitor would all be Queen’s men, and would probably know each other. Queen’s stood for something in the city and the province . . . It was accepted for what it was . . .’ He knew that the university was fiercely meritocratic but it was not, like Oxford, class-riven and even those who weren’t graduates treated it as a token of the compacted village-like nature of the six counties where, despite the religious divide, everyone seemed to know everyone else.

He wrote to Monica in 1951. ‘I have almost given up the battle, and floating down the social tide feel my nationality and individuality and character submerging like empty cake boxes.’ It was not that he seriously feared he might be absorbed by an almost alien culture. Rather he relished the tensions of being at once part of and different from this new environment, and this in turn provided a greater impulse to his output as a poet. He now felt more confident as an outsider, someone who could commit his impressions and imaginings to the words on the page without becoming their captive, as he had during his endeavours with fiction. On 12 July 1951 he sent Monica an account of his first ‘Orange Day or whatever they call it’. It reads rather like the diary of an Edwardian anthropologist, who is at once dumbfounded and fascinated by tribal rituals previously unimaginable.

The bands were various, too: fife and drum, pipe and drum, brass, & even accordion, all keeping a strong beat that slightly disagreed with the one behind & the one in front. As for the Lodges themselves . . . I said afterwards that it reminded me of a parade of the 70,000 Deadly Sins. Take a standard football crowd (soccer), cut a fringed orange anti-macassar in two and hang one round the neck of each man: give him large false orange cuffs & white gloves to emphasise the tawdry ugliness of his blue Sunday suit, & clap a bowler hat on his head – then you have a Lodger ready for marching.

Most of the anti-macassars were orange edged with purple, but some were purple edged with orange: certain members (‘Sir Knights’ or ‘Provosts’) carried shiny & curiously-repellent symbolic swords & axes – not real, but silver-plated. The dominant impression from the endless tramping file of faces was of really-depressing ugliness. Slack, sloppy, sly, drivelling, daft, narrow, knobby, vacant, vicious, vulpine, vulturous – every kind of ugliness was represented not once but tenfold – for you’ve no idea how long it was . . . bonfires at every street corner blazing up house-high. I strolled down about half past eleven (drizzle coming down as usual) & was fascinated by the cardboard arches across the streets, the thick waves of Guinness, War Horse tobacco, & vinegared chips, the dancing crowds, & the pairs & trios of gum-chewing young girls roaming about wearing paper hats stamped ‘No surrender’, ‘Not an inch’, & various Unionist catchwords. Police stood uneasily about in their raincapes . . .

A month after he arrived he sent Monica drafts of six poems, some of which he had begun earlier and abandoned, others composed in his first six weeks in Belfast. ‘On the whole I think Wind [later published as ‘Wedding Wind’] is the best. I wish I could write more like that, fuller richer in reference.’ It is an unadorned account, told by the bride, of her wedding day, with more attention given to the weather and the countryside than to the emotional impact of the event.

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Before this, he had shown some of his work to Monica, as he had to Amis, but now he began to trust her far more as someone who would talk with him about his verse, albeit often in correspondence, rather than tell him about it, as Amis generally did. Monica would remain his most trusted intimate, his valued consultant on work in progress, but there is a sense also that Belfast instilled something in his verse that would endure – something parochial, familiar yet rather bizarre.

The Less Deceived (1955) would alter his status from obscure, occasional novelist and versifier to one of the outstanding voices in the motley chorus of post-war English writing, and many of its best pieces benefited greatly from his relationship with Monica, by parts separated and intimate. Never before had he said so much about what a piece of writing meant to him, either to Sutton or Amis. On ‘Next Please’: ‘I think it’s just another example of the danger of looking forward to things . . . a sense that what we wait so long for and therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionally long time to pass.’

The first of his great poems is ‘Church Going’; imperfect but unimprovable. It tells us much about his sense of being elsewhere, not committed to a particular location nor alienated from it. He wrote in Further Requirements that ‘One Sunday afternoon in Ireland when I had cycled out into the country I came across a ruined church, the first I had seen. It made a deep impression on me.’ He had seen churches bombed but never one fallen into disuse, and it was the inspiration for the poem. But the ruined church outside Belfast offered only a hint of what would evolve into the poem after his visit to England. On 6 March 1954 he wrote of his week in the Midlands spent mainly with his mother, on ‘family graves’ in Lichfield, notably Sydney’s, followed by a ‘queer mixture of hell and rest cure’; by this he meant a poorly attended service in Lichfield Cathedral. He sent a draft of the poem to Amis and reported to Monica that ‘Church Going didn’t interest him . . . Not a word about the poem as a whole.’ He expected constructive criticism but what he received were heedless, dismissive projections of Amis’s prejudices.

Monica shared Larkin’s interest in churches, specifically those that in some way raised questions about their past and the individuals who had regarded them as an integral part of their lives. They would speculate on why and when the congregation had diminished and what kind of people had walked through the same lych gates and arched doors, some with their names on now overgrown gravestones; others unrecorded.

He discovered –or to be more accurate Monica helped him discover – a manner of writing verse that suited his temperament. He had as an undergraduate and during his career as a novelist attempted to make sense of the world by harnessing his innate talent as a stylist to all-consuming theories of art and existence. In Belfast he sharpened his focus, allowing what he saw and what he felt to determine the nuances and resonances of the words on the page. He did not exchange ideas for pure impressionism; instead he refused to allow either his intellect or visual faculty to take full command of the creative enterprise. He let them compete for prominence, albeit unobtrusively. It is no coincidence that during these same years he became more and more fascinated by photography.

Revisiting Wells in 1967 was one of several returns to Larkin’s past, some of which were more impulsive. Nine months earlier he suddenly decided, late one Saturday afternoon, to visit Monica in Leicester. He threw some clothes into a bag and drove off, only to find that after an hour on the road his petrol gauge indicated a near empty tank and that he had forgotten to bring any more than the loose change in his jacket.

He managed to get back to Pearson Park, just, and immediately drafted Monica a letter reporting, a little proudly, on his uncharacteristically impetuous gesture. She was comforted that something of the passion and energy of the first years of their relationship had endured into their middle age. Later in the same letter he assures her that while the thought of being with her caused him to drive south the impulse brought with it broader reflections.

I feel I am landed on my 45th year as if washed up on a rock, not knowing how I got here or never having a chance of being anywhere else . . . Of course my external surroundings have changed, but inside I’ve been the same, trying to hold everything off in order to ‘write’.

Within eighteen months he would again be asked to exchange the ‘external surroundings’ of the present day for those of his past.

In February 1969 Queen’s University Belfast informed him that he was to be awarded an honorary D.Litt at the graduation ceremony in July. He and Monica flew over and stayed one night only. The mood of the Province was tense, with the Civil Rights marches provoking sometimes brutal responses from the RUC and, on both sides of the sectarian divide, there were incipient stirrings of paramilitary activity.

That year the Unionist celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July seemed like a countdown to something more than the annual display of marching Orangemen and pipe bands. The degree ceremony was held little more than a week before the Twelfth and while Larkin had a clear recollection of what routinely happened in Belfast and the rest of the Six Counties in mid-July, this time he noticed that young men, even children in shorts, appeared intent on building bonfires larger than any he had previously witnessed, making use of every combustible item available. He walked along the same streets and through the same parks he had known so well fourteen years earlier. The buildings were largely unchanged but a siege mentality was abroad, and he took photographs which capture something of Ulster on the brink of three decades of sectarian violence.

Shortly before the ceremony he composed a poem and sent it to the Revd AH Quinn, then at Keele University and previously an acquaintance during his years at Queen’s.

See the Pope of Ulster stand,
Spiked shillelagh in each hand,
Vowing to uphold the Border,
Father, Son and Orange Order

The ‘Pope of Ulster’ was Ian Paisley, the Protestant evangelist frequently referred to by Irish Republican terrorists as their best ‘recruiting sergeant’. Despite Larkin’s trepidations about Ulster he and Monica decided to spend almost three weeks in Ireland later that year, departing on 25 August and boarding the ferry back from Dublin on 12 September, one of their longest holidays. They chose to avoid the North but made a point of returning to locations in Dublin and on the west coast they had visited via slow steam trains from Belfast in the 1950s. Larkin calculated that they would cover at least 2,000 miles and was looking forward to testing his new car. A month earlier he had exchanged his Singer Vogue for an Austin Princess Vanden Plas which he joyously described to Barbara Pym as: ‘an enormous 4-litre Vanden Plas Princess, with a Rolls Royce engine . . . love at first sight, one of the few cars I can bear the look of . . . huge and ponderous, like an old drawing room, and does 80 without turning a hair.’

They visited Dublin, and returned to locations they had known in the early 1950s: tea in the Shelbourne, a trip to the National Gallery and Trinity College. Had things changed? Larkin reflected that Ireland was no longer ‘(a) remote . . . (b) censor ridden – News of the World and Ulysses available . . . (c) poverty stricken – all houses seem freshly done up and there are no barefoot children etc (mostly riding bicycles anyway).’ But unlike the citizens of the older Dublin those of the modern metropolis were no longer ‘courteous’, ‘as I’m sure M[onica] would add . . . having been bunted to and fro on Dublin pavements.’ (‘Holiday Diaries’, 1969) Constantly, Larkin was comparing the present with the past. Ireland had changed – in the South at least, it seemed to him more like Britain – but he was unable or unwilling to voice his feelings about this, at least until June 1970 when he composed a poem, ‘Dublinesque’. He sent the draft to Monica, claiming it originated from ‘an odd dream’ but she would have known that it was distilled from what they had felt nine months earlier in Ireland.

Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

We learn nothing of the deceased but the procession, roughly sketched, accompanies us through the rest of the poem. The hearse is followed by

. . . streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.
Images from the past shuffle through dimly lit streets and it seems that a collective state of mind is being laid to rest rather than an individual.
There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of . . .
And of great sadness also
As they wend their way away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

Ireland, from Larkin’s recent visit, is burying its past [but] the Irish seem also to have disposed of something vital, something ‘they were fond of’, its absence causing a ‘great sadness’.

They spent a week as guests of Richard Murphy at the latter’s delightfully restored cottage near Westport. Charles Monteith, head of Faber and Faber, who also published Murphy’s verse, joined them, but it is notable that in the Diary Larkin refers only to their arrival at the Murphys and his and Monica’s occasional excursions from the house. Monica enters no comments, and Patsy, who was spoken of by Murphy, is never mentioned. They had been divorced for ten years. Just over two years earlier Patsy had visited Larkin in Hull. The alluring bohemian with whom he had had an affair had returned as a morose, volatile alcoholic. Commendably, he reported the visit to Monica, stating that Patsy had ‘brought with her an aura of death and madness in a general sort of way’ (15 November 1966). She asked if she could return to Hull the following year but he declined her request and again informed Monica, by way of reassurance, that he had done so. Richard Murphy told them how his marriage to Patsy had gone into terminal decline and neither Larkin nor Monica enjoyed what they heard, though Larkin knew something of this already; a year after the birth of her daughter Emily, Patsy had arranged a clandestine weekend with him in the Home Counties. Murphy’s story did, however, confirm for Monica that Patsy was no longer a competitor for Larkin’s attention, and reinforced his assurances to her that he was drifting towards middle-aged monogamy, or so she thought. While they were staying at the Murphy’s house Larkin wrote a letter and secretly posted it to Maeve: ‘I can’t forget you, even if I had any inclination to . . . Accept a big kiss and some spectral maulings – are you wearing tights? Or stockings?’ (4 September 1969).

This extract is taken from The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs by Richard Bradford (Frances Lincoln, £25)

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