06 July 2023

Following Philip Larkin’s
trail in Coventry, where
his childhood was ‘unspent’
and just where he ‘started’

The Philip Larkin … the pub name honours Coventry’s best-known poet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

When Coventry became the City of Culture in 2021, there were heated discussions about whether it was appropriate to celebrate Philip Larkin’s connections with Coventry since some of Larkin’s personal views are so objectionable.

Larkin is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was named by the Times as Britain’s greatest post-war writer, and his name was added in stone to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in 2016.

But controversy surrounds Larkin’s personal life and his opinions on many subjects, including women, sex, race, class and religion.

Perhaps Larkin never even liked his own home city. A plaque at Coventry Railway Station commemorates Larkin with lines from his 1954 poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’. In the poem the narrator is on a train that unexpectedly stops in the city, and he exclaims, ‘I was born here’.

It is telling that these are the lines that were chosen for the plaque on Platform 1, and not the lines at the end of the poem, in which Larkin gives a more negative and uncomfortable perception of Coventry:

‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry in 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

I was reminded last week that Philip Larkin was born in Coventry as I came across an old pub that was renamed in his honour. The Philip Larkin is on the corner of The Burges and Corporation Street, and WhatPub, CAMRA’s national pub guide, recently said it is an ‘archetypal city centre pub, very loud and full of the pre club crowd.’

In the past, it was the Tudor Rose, and before that the Tally Ho, the Wine Lodge and the Eagle Vaults. But the name and signs were changed when the pub was refurbished in 2017, long before Coventry was chosen as the City of Culture in 2021 or the Larkin centenary last year.

The Larkin family’s links with Lichfield date back to 1757, and many generations of the family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael’s Church. Some Larkin families lived at No 49 Tamworth Street, at No 21 Tamworth Street, beside the former Regal Cinema and now the site of the Whippet Inn, and at No 21 Saint John Street.

Philip Larkin was baptised in the old cathedral in Coventry in September 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sydney Larkin (1884-1948), who was from Lichfield, and Eva Day first met in Rhyl, North Wales, in 1906. They married in 1911, and first lived near Birmingham. They soon moved to Coventry when he was appointed Deputy Treasurer, and he became City Treasurer in 1922.

Philip Arthur Larkin was born at home at 2 Poultney Road, Radford, a mile north of the city centre, on 9 August 1922, and was baptised in Coventry’s old cathedral in September. The name Philip was chosen by his father after the Renaissance poet Philip Sydney; Arthur was chosen by his mother Eva after her brother.

The former council house in Radford was the Larkin family home from 1919 to 1925, and he spent all his childhood and schooldays in Coventry.

The family moved around 1925 to a larger semi-detached house at 61 Barras Lane, off Holyhead Road and close to both Saint Osburg’s Church and the former Barras Lane Synagogue. They then moved in 1927 to ‘Penvorn’, a large detached house at 1 Manor Road in Cheylesmore, and this was the Larkin family home until 1941. The house survived the Blitz but was demolished in the 1960s to make way for Coventry’s ring road.

As the City Treasurer, Sydney Larkin had an office in the Council House on Earl Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The home was not a happy one – in Larkin’s own words, he found ‘the atmosphere dull, pot-bound and slightly mad. The trouble wasn’t the house but the individuals in it.’

A former Coventry Telegraph journalist Chris Arnot is the author of a book about Larkin’s early life in Coventry. He says: ‘His childhood was not ‘unspent’, as he claimed in ‘I Remember, I Remember.’ He remembered it all too well, the good times as well as the bad, and was devastated by the Luftwaffe’s prolonged bombardment of one of England’s great mediaeval cities shortly after he had left for Oxford.’

Larkin’s attended Cheshunt Preparatory School on Manor Road from 1927 to 1930 and went on to King Henry VIII School on Warwick Road. He joined the junior school in 1930 aged 8, and transferred to the senior school in 1933. The Philip Larkin Room in the school commemorates the former pupil.

His first published prose piece, ‘Getting Up in the Morning’, appeared in the school magazine, The Coventrian, in 1933. He was writing poetry by the age of 15, and The Coventrian published his first poem, ‘Winter Nocturne’, in 1938. He helped to edit the magazine in 1939-1940.

As the City Treasurer from 1922 to 1944, Sydney Larkin had his office on the first floor of the Council House on Earl Street, otherwise Coventry’s Town Hall. Philip was invited into the office at times, including the Godiva processions through Coventry, where both father and son in true Peeping Tom tradition watched the scantily-clad beauty mounted on her horse.

The three shopping streets of Trinity Street, Hertford Street and Broadgate comprise the axis of 1930s Coventry and were well known to the Larkin family. One of Larkin’s favourite shops was Hanson’s Music & Records in Hertford Street, where he and his schoolfriends who were jazz fans spent Saturday afternoons listening to the latest releases.

When he was a sixth former, Larkin occasionally visited the Golden Cross Inn, a 16th century inn on Hay Lane, to read books he borrowed from the Gulston Library nearby, to drink with his friends and to ogle the barmaid.

Trinity Street, Coventry … the three shopping streets of Trinity Street, Hertford Street and Broadgate were well known to the Larkin family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Larkin went to Saint John’s College, Oxford, to study English in 1940. The centre of Coventry was blitz-bombed in 1940-1941, and when he returned from Oxford to search for his parents after the blitz, he fictionalised his traumatic experience in Jill, his first published novel.

During the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. The house was too small for all the Larkins, however, and Sydney Larkin decided to move to Warwick, while Philip Larkin moved around the corner in Lichfield to 9 Sturgeon’s Hill, where he had a room to himself.

When Larkin returned to Lichfield from Oxford for a Christmas holiday in 1940-1941, he regularly walked into the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George and the Swan. During this time in Lichfield, he wrote three poems: Christmas 1940, Out in the lane I pause and Ghosts.

When he left Oxford with a first class degree in 1943, he returned to the Warwick family home, before being appointed Librarian at Wellington in Shropshire in December. He then worked in the library in Leicester from 1946. When Sydney Larkin died in 1948, the family home in Warwick was sold, and Eva Larkin moved to Leicester to be closer to her son.

Larkin was sub-librarian at Queen’s University, Belfast, from 1950 until he was appointed the librarian at Hull University’s Brynmor Jones Library in 1955.

Larkin continued to visit Coventry occasionally throughout his life. He was prompted to recall his Coventry days when his train unexpectedly stopped there in 1954. His poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’ was written immediately afterwards and the opening four lines are commemorated by a plaque on Platform 1 outside the Customer Service Office.

The poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) was the director at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry from 1957 to 1972. He and Larkin knew each other well from Belfast, and when Larkin was editing the Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse in 1973, he included Hewitt’s poem ‘From a Museum Man’s Album’.

When Larkin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick in 1973, he received it in Coventry Cathedral. He took the opportunity to revisit some of his old haunts in what he described as ‘an extraordinary weekend.’

The ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, in 1977, and both Eva and Sydney Larkin are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s.

As a sixth former, Philip Larkin visited the Golden Cross Inn, a 16th century inn on Hay Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The 14th century Saint Mary’s Guildhall was the venue in 1978 when Larkin received the Coventry Award of Merit from the City Council in recognition of his outstanding literary achievements, notably the three collections, The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). This was his final recorded visit to Coventry.

Larkin became seriously ill with cancer in 1985 and died on 2 December 1985 in the Nuffield Hospital, Hull. He is buried in Cottingham Cemetery.

The ‘I Remember, I Remember’ plaque at Coventry Railway Station was unveiled in 1997. Larkin’s Early Poems, published in 2005, includes around 100 poems written in and about Coventry.

Larkin has been adopted by Hull, where he spent most of his life. But it is sometimes forgotten that he was born in Coventry. There is an awkward rivalry between the two cities, and both have Larkin trails, highlighting places he knew or frequented. Perhaps Lichfield ought to have one too.

Philip Larkin received the Coventry Award of Merit in Saint Mary’s Guildhall in 1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

I Remember, I Remember, by Philip Larkin:

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? … A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Philip Larkin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick in Coventry Cathedral in 1973 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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