30 May 2016

A day of conversations with
Archbishop Rowan Williams

The Marino Institute of Education … the venue for a day of conversations with Archbishop Rowan Williams (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I spent to spend today [30 May 2016] as a participant in a day of conversations with Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Marino Institute of Education in Dublin.

There were three conversations during the day. The first conversation, ‘Risking faith in conversation,’ was opened by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and was then taken up by all the participants.

Archbishop Williams, who is now the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, spoke of the need to transcend static positions, rhetoric and arguments, and to overcome soundbites to that we could dig deeper in risking faith in conversation.

It was a generously vague title, but the key word was recognition, he said.

He spoke of gambling on recognition, rather than convergence, communion or agreement. It seeks to see how someone else’s thinking is continuous with how I am thinking. There may not be convergence, but recognition allows the conversation to continue.

There is a recognition of the idea that people are conversable with, and this is what brings us into the moral community.

Death, sex and memory are fairly biologically built into how we act as humans, and are dimensions of our humanity. There is a pre-existing act of faith that there will be coincidence.

We are not psychological or epistemological atoms that can say what we like, but we are always seeking to make sense. To make sense with myself alone is not communicating with others. Someone else has to understand, perhaps to say that this is rubbish, or I do not agree, but still about making sense of what I am saying.

We actively seek the challenge of other voices, and to do this takes for granted a particular type of confidence, which has enough security to disagree, and to bring conflict into focus.

We need to have challenge, or else conversation would wither and die. Good conversation balances security and challenge, and where it is safe enough to disagree we can take a step forward.

In his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had tried to create circumstances in which disagreement could be articulated within the Anglican Communion.

As he spoke of risking faith in conversation, he said good conversation starts from memory, narrative, where I stand, and what I believe. I continue to speak from what I believe and where I stand. What emerges will resonate, enlarge, enrich and provide material for more conversation.

When things are said, things change. Speaking changes things, by interacting and relating.

In interfaith dialogue, the point of dialogue is not to find an agreed formula or capitulation, but in putting fresh questions that take me to places that I have not been to before. It brings us back to recognition.

For example, conversations with Buddhists take us to an unexpected set of questions.

Conversations are based on where we actually are, and bring memories and convictions into public and political conversations, without any embarrassment, and without any expectation of winning the arguments.

They are not abut asserting the dominance of faith in society but about visibility, without dominance or arrogance.

We can ask, ‘Can you see what I’m seeing?’ And the reply may be, ‘No, but I can see that you are seeing something.’ Recognition is not the same as comprehension.

The afternoon opened with the second conversation, ‘Risking faith in poetry and fiction,’ with Dr Williams in conversation with Professor Declan Kiberd, of the University of Notre Dame and University College Dublin, and the writer and theologian Dr Anne Thurston, who were then joined by all the participants.

Archbishop Williams spoke out of his own experience of writing. He described how you write in order discover what you do not know what you know. It starts as a question, ‘What’s that about.’ It is an image, a picture, you walk around it.

Drama is a matter of listening, where the writer listens in to conversations. It belongs in the same territory as faith, with the same kind of unclassifiable character.

He spoke of the itch and curiosity and desire to walk into areas where there is puzzlement and something that needs to be explored. That sense of not knowing, not being in control, in a benign way, gives us something on which to build.

The third conversation in the afternoon was ‘Risking faith in philosophy,’ opened by Dr Williams in conversation with Professor Joseph Dunne of Saint Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and Dr Clare Maloney of the Marino Institute of Education.

This was planned as a day three distinct but not separate conversations and they were cumulative throughout the day.

An afternoon break in a garden in the Marino Institute of Education (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Three poems written by Philip Larkin in
Lichfield (1): ‘Out in the lane I pause’

No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield… the Larkin family moved here in 1940 during the Coventry Blitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Many months ago, I wrote about the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and how his family had lived for some time in Lichfield.

Peter Young, the former Town Clerk of Lichfield who retired last August after 28 years in office, has spoken on a number of occasions – to Lichfield Discovered (2014), to Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Group (2012), and to Lichfield Civic Society (2008) – about Philip Larkin and his associations with Lichfield.

Peter was a student at Hull University when Larkin was the Chief Librarian, and he jokes that Larkin once said of Lichfield: “God this place is dull.”

Larkin was born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Sydney and Eva Larkin. Sydney Larkin (1884-1948) was from Lichfield and his family’s long-standing associations with Lichfield date back to 1757. Some Larkin families lived at both No 21 and No 49 Tamworth Street, Lichfield, and the family graves are in Saint Michael’s Churchyard.

Philip Larkin entered Saint John’s College, Oxford, in October 1940. That year, following the Coventry blitz, Sydney and Eva Larkin moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. Sydney Larkin continued to work in Coventry, while his wife Eva stayed in Lichfield.

However, the house was too small for all the Larkins, and Philip Larkin moved out to another house in Cherry Orchard. There he had a room to himself and he regularly walked in to the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George.

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... a favoured drinking place for the poet Philip Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

While he was in Lichfield, Larkin wrote three poems: ‘Christmas 1940,’ ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Out in the lane I pause,’ and I hope to look at these three poem over these three mornings.

‘Out in the lane I pause’ was written when Larkin returned to Lichfield for a Christmas holiday in 1940. In this poem, he stands alone under a starless sky beside the railway bridge, contemplating the futures of the ‘Girls and their soldiers from the town’ whose steps he can hear on the steep road towards the shops.

From his invisible vantage point, he contemplates the disappointments to come:

Each in their double Eden closed
They fail to see the gardener there
Has planted double error.

The critic and biographer of Larkin James Booth says there is a touch of John Donne about the Biblical rhetoric in this poem and in its complicated rhymed stanzas. Larkin imagines the lovers going their separate ways from each other, and turning back in the future with ‘puzzled tears’:

So through the dark I walk, and feel
The ending year about me lapse,
Dying, into formal shapes
Of field and tree;
And think I fear its faint appeal
Addressed to all who seek for joy,
But mainly me.

This poem also shows how Larkin was influenced by WH Auden, who writes: ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed.’ And there are other echoes of Auden throughout the poem, and the stanza form seems to have been inspired by Auden’s ‘Brothers, who when the sirens roar.’

The narrow bridge over the railway line near Saint Michael’s Churchyard in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I wondered whether the bridge in the poem is the narrow bridge over the railway line at Rotten Row, near Saint Michael’s Churchyard. This bridge links the east end of Cherry Orchard with Greenhill, where the street then passes down the hill through Tamworth Street, past previous Larkin family homes, and into the centre of Lichfield.

The footbridge over the railway line near Levett’s Fields (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Or is the footbridge that leads into the Levett’s Field, and so on into the centre of Lichfield?

The railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street … another candidate for Larkin’s bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Larkin does not say he is standing under the bridge, although if he is unseen, then it is more likely that this is the railway bridge at Upper Saint John Street, close to the west end of Cherry Orchard. Larkin would have passed under this bridge on his way to the George Hotel on Bird Street, but here there is no ‘steep road that travels down / Towards the shops …’

Larkin wrote this poem on the nights of 18 and 19 December 1940, and he wrote to James Ballard Sutton on 20 December: ‘I wrote a poem the last 2 nights which I will copy to out for you if I can find it. It’s highly moral of course.’

Larkin and Sutton met at school and remained close friends for years. A collection in Hull University of Larkin’s letters to Jim Sutton form the single most important body of evidence for Larkin’s formative years. The topics discussed include Larkin’s views on poetry, contemporary writers, jazz, family and friends and Larkin’s attitude to love and marriage.

This poem is included as ‘Poem XXX’ in Chosen Poems, 35 poems in typescript collected by Larkin in April 1941. But this poem written in Lichfield was never published during Larkin’s lifetime.

It was first published in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (1988), pp 253-254, and is included in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia, edited by AT Tolley (2005), pp 137-1138. More recently, it was included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2012/2014).

‘Out in the lane I pause’

Out in the lane I pause: the night
Impenetrable round me stands,
And overhead, where roofline ends,
The starless sky
Black as a bridge: the only light
Gleams from the little railway
That runs nearby.

From the steep road that travels down
Towards the shops, I hear the feet
Of lonely walkers in the night
Or lingering pairs;
Girls and their soldiers from the town
Who in the shape of future years
Have equal shares;

But not tonight are questions posed
By them; no, nor the bleak escape
Through doubt from endless love and hope
To hate and terror;
Each in their double Eden closed
They fail to see the gardener there
Has planted Error;

Nor can their wish for quiet days
Be granted; though their motions kiss
This evening, and make happiness
Plain as a book,
They must pursue their separate ways
And flushed with puzzled tears, turn back
Their puzzled look.

And if, as of gipsy at a fair,
Sorry, I inquire for them
If things are really what they seem,
The open sky
And all the gasping, withered air
Can only answer: ‘It is so’
In brief reply.

So through the dark I walk, and feel
The ending year about me lapse,
Dying, into its formal shapes
Of field and tree;
And think I feel its faint appeal
Addressed to all who seek for joy,
But mainly me:

‘From those constellations turn
Your eyes, and sleep; for every man
Is living; and for peace upon
His life should rest;
This must everybody learn
For mutual happiness, that trust
Alone is best.’

Tomorrow:Christmas 1940