Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin by James Booth

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Authors: James Booth
4
    Nothing So Glad
    1943–5
     
    Larkin arrived in Wellington on 1 December 1943, an inexperienced, unworldly young man of twenty-one. It was, on the face of it, an unpromising place to start a literary career. ‘Too large to have the community spirit of a village and too small to engender the cultural activities of a larger town, it was an unremarkable little place with a built-in resistance to new ideas and even perhaps to newcomers.’ 1 On his arrival he simply stayed in lodgings for a while: ‘The idea of getting a flat for myself was, you know, beyond my imagination.’ Once he had found more permanent digs in a 1930s detached house, ‘Glentworth’, his social life settled into a bachelor pattern. 2 He played snooker at the local YMCA; he visited Sidoli’s and Brittain’s cafés and the town’s three cinemas with local girls, including Jane Exall, the ‘bosomy English rose’ of ‘Wild Oats’. Writing to Sutton in mid-December, he made a show of disdain for the duties of his new position: ‘I am entirely unassisted in my labours, and spend most of my time handing out tripey novels to morons. I feel it is not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius.’ 3 By March 1944 he was seeing some advantages to his situation: ‘I intend to devote myself to writing and doing my boring job without enthusiasm or slackness. I only took it on account of being able to write in the intervals: it’s not so easy, I must say, but it’s possible.’ 4 Indeed, from a literary point of view, wartime Wellington did offer what he needed. He occupied a respected position in the local community, and was largely his own master.
    In his brief memoir ‘Single-handed and Untrained’, written in 1977, Larkin recalled his days in Wellington with affection. 5 He began each morning by stoking the boiler, and later in the day it was his task to light the gas-mantles with long, dripping tapers. He set about modernizing the Library’s antiquated systems and procedures, arguing with the Urban District Council about the need for improvements, and renewing the interior decoration. He enrolled on a correspondence course leading to membership of the Library Association and secured the appointment of an assistant librarian. When he arrived the Library’s stock consisted of only 4,000 books, and his purchases of works by Lawrence, Forster, Joyce and Isherwood gained him a reputation for ‘filling the Library with dirty books’. 6 In a letter to Sutton of March 1944 he expressed a somewhat baffled respect for the ‘quiet men in cloth caps who take out books of a rather serious kind with a serious expression on their faces, as if they are seriously trying to get a grip on things’. The reading choices of the female library-users disappointed him: ‘It’s the women that are the stupid sods. I hate women when it comes to choosing books.’ 7 But he expressed such views only to distant correspondents, and rose to the social demands of his position, involving himself in the needs and ambitions of the local library-users. With a dynamism inherited from his father he persuaded the Urban District Council to raise the municipal rate by a penny in the pound to support the purchase of new books. 8 He took pride in the increase in inter-library loans, ‘chiefly to sixth-formers, and those readers with precise interests and courses of study’. 9 To older readers ‘he was unfailingly courteous, and his diffidence and nervous stammer, together with his patient willingness to find them books they would enjoy, won them over completely’. 10
    One library-user on whom he made a particularly deep impression was Ruth Bowman, in 1943–4 a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl:
 
The arrival of Philip made life suddenly brighter. Here was someone, a mere handful of years older than myself, glamorized by an Oxford degree – not all that common in Wellington at that time – mature, learned and successful, who was yet willing to discuss

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