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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (39) 6 July 2023

The Priory Church of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York … not to be confused with the similarly-named Holy Trinity Church Goodramgate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (3 July 2023).

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (6 July 2023remembers Thomas More, Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs, 1535.

Before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate,is a living, inclusive church in York (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

The Priory Church of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York:

Holy Trinity Church at Goodramgate in York, which I was looking at yesterday, should not be confused with the similarly-named Priory Church of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, the only pre-Reformation monastic building still in use in York.

Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, is on the west bank of the River Ouse inside the walled city of York. The church building is a complex structure incorporating parts of the fabric of a mediaeval priory church dedicated to the Holy Trinity and a mediaeval parish church dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

Holy Trinity is listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as one of five great northern churches, alongside York Minster.

The church was re-founded ca 1089 as a Benedictine priory, and for over 500 years this church was part of a large and important Benedictine monastery. It may be that a ‘double church’ was built at the end of the 11th century, with one half, Holy Trinity, providing a place of worship for the monastic community and a second, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, used by the parish.

The Benedictines created a large monastic complex, covering some seven acres, with a magnificent priory church at its heart.

The Priory Church of the Holy Trinity is the only monastic building to have survived as a place of worship in the city.

Today, the parish includes the former parishes of two neighbouring churches, Saint John and Saint Martin in Micklegate, both now redundant and with other uses. Holy Trinity is a living, inclusive church.

The Revd Simon Askey, former Dean of Undergraduate Law, University of London, and Honorary Assistant Curate of the Benefice of Walworth, Saint John in the Diocese of Southwark, was licensed as Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York, earlier this year (22 January 2023). The Sunday Eucharist is at 11 am each week.

The peace bell at Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, York (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 9: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 And after getting into a boat he crossed the water and came to his own town.

2 And just then some people were carrying a paralysed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — he then said to the paralytic — ‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

The Priory Church of the Holy Trinity in Micklegate, York, is the only monastic building to have survived as a place of worship in the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘FeAST – Fellowship of Anglican Scholars of Theology.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Canon Dr Peniel Rajkumar of USPG.

Find out more HERE.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (6 July 2023) invites us to pray:

We give thanks to all who have answered your call to ministry and all who educate and support them to shape them for your service. May you challenge and nurture them with your Word.


O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate, incorporates parts of a mediaeval priory church dedicated to the Holy Trinity and a mediaeval parish church dedicated to Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org