Poets’ Houses: Ruskin, Larkin, The Group
John Ruskin, 8 Russell Terrace, Leamington Spa
John Ruskin lived at number 8, Russell Terrace, while he was taking the cure from Dr. Jephson, Leamington’s quack mastermind. (Dr. Jephson’s house is today a shop called Planet Bong.) Having seen his house I ought to have another go at his poetry, but I’ve tried twice and found it pretty heavy-going; still, if anyone has any recommendations, let me know.
Philip Larkin, Pageant House, Jury Street, Warwick
It’s an oddity of Philip Larkin’s life that he wrote so much about the awfulness of work and experienced it so little. He found a profession he enjoyed almost immediately after leaving university and made a good career out of it; in ten years he’d risen from sub-librarian to University Librarian, and by this point nobody was checking whether he was doing any work:
At first I was impressed with the time he spent in his office, arriving early and leaving late. It was only later that I realised that his office was also his study where he spent hours on his private writing as well as the work of the library.
(Professor R.L. Brett, quoted on Larkin’s Wikipedia page)
This building in Warwick, now a venue for wedding ceremonies, has the distinction of being the only place where Larkin had to drudge. In 1942, his second year at Oxford, the ground floor was the Fuel Office, and he took a summer job there which he hated. For some reason, the most recent Larkin biography doesn’t mention this; it came to light in 2000, when Don Lee and Richard Phillips wrote up their discoveries from the Larkin archive in the Larkin Society’s journal, About Larkin. Sadly the journal isn’t digitised, so I can’t read the grumpy song he composed while working there, ‘Fuel Form Blues’. Anyway, I salute both Lee and Phillips, and Richard O’Brien who put me onto them.
‘The Group’, 31 Kimberley Road
November 1952, and a particularly strange advert appears in Varsity:
Shortly after this, in November, Peter [Redgrove] read an advertisement in the student newspaper, Varsity: ‘Undergraduates interested in private poetry readings contact “Gerrard”, 31, Kimberley Road’. Whoever Gerrard was, the advert had been placed by a group of English students at Downing College: Tony Davis, Neil Morris and Philip Hobsbaum.
(Neil Roberts, A Lucid Dreamer: The Life of Peter Redgrove)
It’s frequently claimed that ‘The Group’ was the UK’s first poetry workshop group, and I think there’s some truth in this. There had been plenty of other regular meetings of poets, in Cambridge and elsewhere, which involved discussion of previously-circulated poems; but the Group meetings introduced (? – I’d be interested in accounts of earlier candidates) the idea of approaching the poems as fellow writers rather than as readers or critics. (Of course these roles can’t really be separated; it’s a question of how much emphasis you place on each role.)
Everywhere Hobsbaum went – London, Belfast, Sheffield – he founded a new iteration of ‘the Group’, each called ‘the Group’; there is no record, as far as I know, of whether each had its own ‘Gerrard’. ‘Gerald’, John le Carré’s codename for the mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence, first appears in 1974 (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy); 1952, the year Hobsbaum placed his advert, was also the year in which le Carré returned to England and began spying for MI5 at Oxford. It was also the year that Kim Philby, the model for le Carré‘s Gerald, resigned from the MI5 and came under suspicion of being ‘the third man’.
Abridged versions of original posts from Poets’ Houses.