Electric Limits


Statue of Philip Larkin at Hull Paragon station. Photograph by Diamond Geezer.

From The New Yorker:

Larkin really was a hermit. He disliked virtually everyone who worked for the university, and especially those in my department, because he thought we talked nonsense about poetry (by nonsense, he meant structuralism). And they weren’t exaggerating. For the first few months of my first term, despite a certain amount of time spent lingering in his library, or dillydallying along the “Great White Way,” which ran outside his office windows, he remained as elusive as the yeti. Then my head of department, John Chapple, took pity on me and offered to introduce me to him one lunchtime in the university staff bar.

Over the years, I’d seen plenty of photographs of Larkin, and had a clear picture of him in my mind: owl-faced, “death-suited,” and balding. And when I first clapped eyes on him he was indeed all these things, but much taller and bulkier than I expected—to the extent that, when we shook hands (his skin was rather moist), he seemed to loom over me like an enormous shadow, cupping one ear with his free hand to compensate for his deafness. The effect, combined with a glimpse of red socks (surprisingly informal) and a watch chain stretched across his waistcoat (surprisingly formal), and the almost stifling nervousness I felt at being in his presence, rendered me pretty well speechless. Larkin was fifty-five—a year younger than my father—but in appearance and manner much older-looking. I was twenty-three and suddenly as uncertain as I had been as a schoolboy.

It was not an auspicious first contact, and might easily have meant we talked stiltedly for a few minutes, then went our separate ways. But, after a minute or two, Larkin took a large swig from his beer glass, only to find most of it going down his throat the wrong way. This meant that instead of standing there disabled by admiration, I was suddenly pounding him on the back to help him get his breath back. He put down his glass and took off his glasses to wipe his eyes; there was a sore patch of skin either side of his nose. It made him seem almost pitifully unshelled. I thought he must look like this when he was asleep.

When he recovered, we began talking more easily—the mishap had destroyed the ice of politeness. Now there was Hull university chat (I was still too new to know most of the people he mentioned), Oxford chat (it struck me that he was a bit of a snob about Oxford, and liked that I’d been a student there rather than anywhere else), poetry chat (he approved of my having written my thesis about Edward Thomas), and a bit of life chat: I was alone in Hull, seeing my then wife, Joanna, on alternate weekends. He seemed to approve of that, too, and said he had a similar arrangement “with Monica,” whose name I recognized as the dedicatee of “The Less Deceived.” At some point, he asked me what my father did for his work. “He’s a brewer,” I told him. His face lit up, as though this proved I came from stock that produced something—alcohol—that people really wanted, rather than something—poetry—that they could take or leave.

“Philip Larkin and Me: A Friendship with Holes in It”, Andrew Motion, The New Yorker