Regular followers will know that one of the undercurrents in all this stuff about famous librarians is that librarians take great exception to persistent stereotype of the librarian as a bespectaled, shy socially awkward misfit. So this week we are going to once again see if we can’t disprove that stereotype by looking at a librarian who was, bespectacled, prematurely bald, had a frequent tendency to stammer and was irredeemably shy and lacking in self confidence. He is a perfect Photofit of every stereotype of a librarian that has ever been rolled out by lazy hacks as shorthand for the dull and uninspiring. In fact if a casting director drew up a specification for a stereotypical librarian in a film he would probably end up describing Philip Larkin. But as we shall see appearances can be deceptive.
An awful lot of people know at least two bits of Philip Larkin’s poetry even if they have no idea that it is actually he who wrote them but it is probably the most poetry that many of us know. You know the the bits I mean; one refers to the negative effect your “mum and dad” have on your life(1) and the other accurately pinpoints the year in which sex started (2). Philip Larkin produced what one biographer calls “the Twentieth Century’s most outstanding body of English verse” and his official biographer Andrew Motion declares him “one of the greatest poets of the [20th]century”. Larkin was one of the giants of English literature; articles about him filled the arts pages of newspapers and he was the subject of several profiles on television including the influential The South Bank Show and on John Betjeman’s death he was hotly tipped to be and was indeed invited to be next Poet Laureate, although he declined the invitation. He was the best known most read and most praised poet of his generation but more importantly of course, for the whole of this public life, and indeed from 1943 until his untimely death in 1985 he was also a librarian. So we will be devoting a bit of time to Larkin over the next few weeks.
Brynmoor Jones, Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull during the early part of Larkin’s career there commented that people who have written about Larkin have made too much of his poems and not enough of him as a librarian but it would be very difficult to create as impressive a list of Larkin’s achievement in his 40 odd years as a librarian as commentators have of his life as a writer quite apart from the small matter that it would be dreadfully boring even for diehard librarians! On the other hand despite the fact that this is a section about librarians more famous for their achievements in other lives there isn’t a fat lot of point in repeating all the euglogies about his poetry because far better writers than I have done that much better than I ever could. Instead we shall look, briefly, at Larkin’s library career with some help from Andrew Motion’s biography but you will soon realise that this isn’t nearly enough to justify devoting a lot of time to him. Fortunately as we shall see the various posthumous publications about Larkin have revealed that there was quite enough else going on in his life whilst juggling his poetry and his libraries to justify an extended exploration in a publication that has set itself the improbable task of convincing a sceptical world that libraries and librarians can actually be very interesting and even entertaining.
Larkin had no idea what he wanted to do when he left Oxford until he was attracted to the post of librarian in the small Shropshire town of Wellington. Like many who back into a career in libraries when all else fails Larkin was less than enthusiastic and we can surmise that librarianship was not a profession for which Larkin had a youthful passion. Although his mother had chosen libraries as a career his biographer suggests Larkin himself was far from keen and in his letters he reveals that he was “not very proud of the fact” that he had obtained a post in the profession and just in case anyone should mistake his attitude he wrote elsewhere, with the succinct elegance that characterised his poetry, that he knew “sweet f*** all about librarianship.” Although I am sure that he is in good company as many of us even after many years in the profession have woken up in the night with the same despairing thought as we wrestle with perennial problems such as “do we put the physical geography books and human geography books on different floors as Dewey demands or all together where readers can actually find them or do we just put them all in a skip and see if anyone notices?”
To help overcome the ticklish problem of applying for a job about which he knew absolutely nothing his father had provided him with a fascinating read entitled “The Public Library System of Great Britain” which is at least better than Mein Kampf which it might have been given his father’s political sympathies, or Men Only which is the usual stuff dads feel able to pass on to their sons when they reach a certain age. He also encouraged Philip to find out how libraries worked and someone from his home town library in Coventry did indeed give him a rudimentary introduction to “how books were ordered, acessioned and catalogued and then given little little pockets with individual tickets in them that were slipped into borowers cards when the book is lent” all of which must surely have quickened the young Larkin’s pulse.
When he was appointed to the post in Wellington Larkin was hardly more enthusiastic about the career than before; the books in the library were he claimed “mostly very poor with no poetry later than Houseman” (obviously people in Shropshire felt that they did not need any more poetry after “A Shropshire Lad”) and had to deal with the customers particularly the local tramps who found the stuffy, snug and above all free facilities at the Library much to their liking. It is quite possible that his daily encounters with customers of doubtful hygiene whose chief need for the library was a warm place to sleep off their drinking was why he felt so at home in university libraries later in his career
But by 1946, tiring of the rural life, Larkin successfully applied for a post of Sub Librarian in the Library at University College Leicester. It was at was at Leicester that Larkin met Monica Jones whom you will come across again later. Despite confiding that librarian “was not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius” Larkin immediately appears to have taken to the companionship of academic life far more enthisiastically than he did to the customers of Wellington and engaged with local activities including being a regular visitor to Leicestershire County Cricket Club. One of his friends referred to Larkin’s “inclination towards misery” and as a life long LCCC member myself I can understand how Larkin would have been entirely at home with the rest of us who still sit through dull summer days watching the familiar ineptitude of yet another Leicestershire batting collapse against a mediocre Kent pace attack with the air of people resigned to all the disappointments that life throws in our direction before trudging off the the pub for lunch to cheer ourselves up by discussing the imminent prospects for socialism and a fair and just society!
After four years though Larkin felt the need to move on again and he successful applied for a post of Sub- Librarian at Queens University Belfast and after a further five years he felt he had learned enough to apply for the job of Chief Librarian at what had just become the University of Hull. Although he was ambitious enough to wish to move on Larkin was typically unsure of his own abilities. On learning of the vacancy at Hull Larkin was desperately in need of reassurance which he inevitably sought from Monica Jones “The Librarianship at Hull is vacant;” he wrote, “but do I want a headship? Damned if I think I do.. Branch librarian at Bridport is more my line really.” I have to confess that I did nearly miss that important reference as I was distracted by the previous page of the collected correspondence with Monica Jones from which it came. It’s easily done when the letter features prominently in italics the phrase “You and your bottom” and then having caught my eye I just happened to notice that it continued. “…I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after breakfasttime (sic) when you were looking out of my kitchen window and let me tuck your skirt up around your waist to be admired. You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in”
That was of course just a glimpse of the Larkin that was revealed after his death and if you are patient for just a little longer you will begin to understand why we are investing a bit of time in him. One of the perils of trying to disaggregate Larkin’s library life from the rest of it is that the rest of his life is infinitely more diverting but we shall get to that shortly.
Despite his misgivings Larkin was appointed Librarian at the University of Hull. “I’m now I fancy the youngest University librarian in GB. Much good may it do me” he reflected. Larkin was 32 and he remained at Hull until his death in 1984. From “sweet f*** all about libraries” to being Chief Librarian at a university had taken not much more than 10 years.
On his arrival at Hull Larkin was initialled viewed a little askance by his new Secretary, you’ll come across her later as well, unsure about his bright red socks and her doubts were not much allayed by his installation of a spy glass in his office so that he could peruse the new intake of female students. At the time it seems to have been viewed as a curious but endearing indiosyncracy rather than cause for a discreet call to Operation Yewtree as it would today.
Despite such an inauspicious beginning Larkin oversaw a spectactular increase in the fortunes of the Library thanks in part to an excellent working relationship with Brynmoor Jones his first Vice Chancellor who would joke that he paid Larkin a Librarian’s salary to write poetry but was astute enough to realise the value of Larkin to the university. Larkin too was smart enough to know which side his bread was buttered. In an invitation for an entry for Who’s Who in America he tells Monica that he described himself as University Librarian “as long as I get four times as much for this role as for ‘author’, ‘writer’, ‘poet’ I shall go on doing so”
Under Larkin the Hull Library budget almost doubled, the collection grew more than three fold and staff from 12 to 100 but the self-doubts remained. In May 1955 caught up in the wrangling over whether Hull would get a new library he confides to Monica “Actually they should never have appointed me, I am quite the wrong man since I don’t care 2d about all” which I only mention because he adds with no obvious relevance to the new library building at all “I would much rather kiss your pretty measurements…” But I must try and stick to the library details and not be distracted by all the interesting and prurient stuff. But I did just notice in passing that in the same letter but penned a few days later he ends a sentence about the burden of the huge library for which he is now responsible with a compliment to Monica on how much he “liked the red suspender belt ”
Larkin appears to have had a well respected and until the last few years at least a satisfying professional career to which Andrew Motion gives plenty of air time and as I have said you can read all of this in Motion’s excellent biography from which I have filletted out all the relevant bits as this is a book about libraries and librarians and have done the same with the letters to Monica Jones but to be honest even a world champion library nerd wearing all of their anoraks at once would have to admit that all of the stuff about libraries pales way past insignificance by comparison with all the other things that went on in Larkin’s life and will I hope demonstrate that the life of a librarian really doesn’t have to be even more dull than a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February. So we’ll come to that next time. Just be patient.
(1) “They f*** you up your mum and dad
They do not mean to but they do…”
This be the Verse
(2)“Sexual intercouse began
In ninteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP…”