10 October 2022

Recalling Philip Larkin’s
links with Lichfield on
his 100th anniversary

33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield … Philip Larkin spent Christmas 1940 here after the Larkin family moved during the Coventry Blitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985), who was born on 9 August 1922.

A series of centenary events continue across the country, including poetry, dance, talks, music, theatre discussions, art exhibitions, conferences, online conversations, a 1950s quiz, a Larkin walk in East Yorkshire, a revival of Ben Brown’s play, ‘Larkin With Women,’ a Larkin Day in Wellington, Shropshire, where he began his career as a librarian, a Larkin Day in Loughborough and a joint conference with the Betjeman Society on their collaborative adventures.

Last week, on the eve of National Poetry Day, Mary Beard introduced a Larkin Poetry Hour in the British Library. There are ‘High Tea and Poetry’ afternoons in the James Reckett Reading Room in Hull Central Library. A range of activities Hull Libraries culminates in a Larkin exhibition in the Central Library in December.

Larkin worked in Belfast in 1950-1955, and tomorrow (Tuesday 11 October 2022), as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Philip Pullen, Chair of Larkin100, gives a talk, ‘Larkin in Belfast: The Importance of Elsewhere’.

The annual commemoration by the Philip Larkin Society on 2 December, the day Larkin died in 1985, takes place this year in Westminster Abbey, including Evensong, a short ceremony in Poets’ Corner and readings of his poems. His stone in Poets’ Corner includes words from one of his best-known poems, An Arundel Tomb (1964): ‘our almost-instinct almost true What will survive of us is love.’

The Philip Larkin Society Conference, ‘Bad habits of expectancy’, takes place at the University of Hull on 8-9 December.

Larkin has been described by Andrew Motion as ‘one of the two or three most important British poets of the last part of the 20th century,’ and Clive James once said he ‘was the greatest poet of his time.’

Duart House at 31 Saint John Street … once a home of the Larkin family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Peter Young, former Town Clerk of Lichfield, has spoken on many occasions about Larkin’s associations with Lichfield. Larkin once said of Lichfield: ‘God this place is dull.’ While he was staying at 9 Sturgeon’s Hill, Lichfield, in October 1940, he wrote, ‘At first I didn’t like staying here at all … Lichfield is a home for shopping as you from Leicester and I from Oxford realise or will realise. But for Peace & Quiet, Incorporated, it’s fine. I shall sink into a primeval slime.’

Despite these feelings, Larkin wrote three poems in Lichfield that are anything but dull and they form an important part of his collected works.

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 born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Eva Larkin and her husband, Sydney Larkin (1884-1948), who was from Lichfield. In October 1940, during the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney 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 Philip Larkin moved around the corner to 9 Sturgeon’s Hill, where he had a room to himself.

The sign of the Swan on Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

In Out in the lane I pause, the poet is standing alone under a starless sky beside a railway bridge. From his invisible vantage point, he contemplates the futures of the ‘Girls and their soldiers from the town’ whose steps he can hear on the steep road towards the shops, and the war-time disappointments to come.

Larkin wrote this poem on the nights of 18 and 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend, James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997), on 20 December, along with two other poems, Christmas 1940 and Ghosts, written in Lichfield on the night of 19 December 1940.

Peter Young has suggested that Larkin may have referred to the Gazebo on Borrowcrop Hill in Christmas 1940, and that in Ghosts he is referring to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street, once the oldest pub in Lichfield.

Writing about Christmas 1940, Larkin told Jim Sutton: ‘I scribbled this in a coma at about 11.45 p.m. last night. The only thing is that its impulse is not purely negative – except for the last 2 lines, where I break off into mumblings of dotage.’

This poem was never published during Larkin’s own lifetime. It was first published in 1992 in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (p. 8). It was included in 2005 by AT Tolley in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenalia (p 135), and it is included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (p 171).

‘If only that so many dead lie round’ … members of the Larkin family are buried at Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christmas 1940

‘High on arched field I stand
Alone: the night is full of stars:
Enormous over tree and farm
The night extends,
And looks down equally to all on earth.

‘So I return their look; and laugh
To see as them my living stars
Flung from east to west across
A windless gulf?

– So much to say that I have never said,
Or ever could.’

The ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard in 1977, and although the poet is buried at Cottingham, near Hull, both Eva and Sydney Larkin are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s.

Despite his well-known line in ‘This Be The Verse’ about parents, the poet visited the graves regularly, he witnessed his mother’s ashes being buried there in 1977, and he once asked for a plan of the churchyard. He died in 1985.

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Monday 10 October 2022

The First Sign in ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York: The Sea Rises to the Height of the Mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (10 October 2022) remembers Paulinus, Bishop of York, Missionary (644), with a Lesser Festival, and Thomas Traherne, Poet and Spiritual Writer (1674).

I have a meeting later this morning about a local, church-based charity. But, before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During the last two weeks, I was reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed in mid-September. This week I am reflecting on the windows in one of those churches: All Saints’ Church, North Street, York.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, A reflection on the windows in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Second and Third Signs in ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window: The Sea Levels fall so low that they can barely be seen; and The Sea returns to Normal (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Paulinus was born in the latter part of the sixth century, probably in Italy, and was among the second group of monks sent by Pope Gregory to England to assist Augustine in his work. He went with the party that accompanied Ethelburga to Northumbria, where she was to marry the king, Edwin, who subsequently took his wife’s Christian faith as his own.

Paulinus built the first church in York in about the year 627 and was the first Bishop of York. He travelled much north and south of the Humber, building churches and baptising new Christians. He had to flee for his life, however, when Edwin was killed in battle by the pagan king, Penda of Mercia, and Paulinus became Bishop of Rochester. He died on this day in the year 644.

Matthew 28: 16-20 (NRSVA):

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The Fourth and Fifth Signs in ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window: The Fish make a Roaring Noise; and The Sea Burns (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, All Saints Church, York (Part 2):

All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, which I described in this prayer diary recently (28 September 2022), is said to be ‘York’s finest mediaeval church.’ It dates from the 11th century and stands near the River Ouse.

The church has an important collection of mediaeval stained glass, including ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World; the window depicting the Corporal Works of Mercy (see Matthew 25: 31ff); the Great East Window, originally in the north wall; the Lady Chapel Window; the Saint James the Great Window; the Saint Thomas Window; and the Coats-of-Arms window.

All Saints’ Church, on North Street, York, is known particularly for the early 15th century window depicting ‘The Pricke Of Conscience’ or ‘The Fifteen Signs of Doom’ Window, which I am looking at on these three days (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday).

This remarkable stained-glass or painted window is near the east end of the north aisle in All Saints’ Church. It consists of three lights with six image panels in each light, totalling 18 panels. There is light tracery also above.

The window dates from ca 1410-1420 and is based on an anonymous 14th century Middle English poem, ‘The Pricke of Conscience.’ The poem describes the final 15 days of the world, each panel contributing to a paraphrase of the poem.

‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window consists of three lights with 18 panels arranged in six equal rows. I was looking yesterday at the bottom-most row of three panels that features the donors of the window. The other 15 panels depict the signs of the end of days – the countdown to the Apocalypse or Last Judgment of humanity.

These 15 panels in five rows illustrating the poem. Reading from left to right, and from bottom to top, the first nine panels illustrate the physical destruction of the earth, while the last six panels in the window are concerned with ‘The death of All Living Things and the Fate of Humanity.’

Theis morning I am looking at the first nine panels depicting the physical destruction of the earth. I plan to look the last six panels in the window, concerned with ‘The death of All Living Things and the Fate of Humanity,’ tomorrow (Tuesday).

The first nine panels illustrating the physical destruction of the earth, reading from left to right, and from bottom to top are:

Row 1:

Panel 1, the First Sign: The Sea Rises to the Height of the Mountains;

Panel 2, the Second Sign: The Sea Levels fall so low that they can barely be seen;

Panel 3, The Third Sign: The Sea returns to Normal;

Row 2:

Panel 1, the Fourth Sign: The Fish make a Roaring Noise;

Panel 2, the Fifth Sign: The Sea Burns;

Panel 3, The Sixth Sign: Plants and Trees exude a Bloody Dew.

Row 3:

Panel 1, the Seventh Sign: Buildings Fall Down. This includes a depiction of the spire of All Saints’ Church, then newly-built but seen here to be falling.

Panel 2, The Eighth Sign: The Earthquake continues with Rocks and Stones sinking together, all at once;

Panel 3, The Ninth Sign: The Earthquake hits Every Country.

Did you notice the figure of a man, repeated, on each side of the top three panels? He indicates the scenes.

The Sixth and Seventh Signs in ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window: Plants and Trees exude a Bloody Dew; and Buildings Fall Down (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Today’s Prayer (Monday 10 October 2022):

The Collect:

God our Saviour,
who sent Paulinus to preach and to baptize,
and so to build up your Church in this land:
grant that, inspired by his example,
we may tell all the world of your truth,
that with him we may receive the reward
you prepare for all your faithful servants;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Paulinus and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Day of the Girl Child.’ This theme is introduced this morning by the Revd Benjamin Inbaraj, Director of the CSI-SEVA department, which runs the Church of South India’s social ministries.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (World Mental Health Day) in these words:

We pray for mental health workers and everyone who is struggling with mental health issues. May we all feel comfortable to discuss our mental health and to seek help when we need to.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Eighth and Ninth Signs in ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window: The Earthquake continues with Rocks and Stones sinking together, all at once; The Earthquake hits Every Country (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)

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

Further reading:

AB Barton, A Guide to the Church of All Saints, North Street, York (York, nd, post-2000).
Mary Chisholm, ‘All Saints’ Church, York: Pricke Of Conscience Window – Morality In Stained Glass 15th-C Style,’ Exploring Building History, <https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/all-saints-york-pricke-of-conscience-window-morality-in-stained-glass-15th-c-style/> [Accessed 5 October 2022].
EA Gee, ‘The Painted Glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York’, Archaeologia 102 (1969), pp 158-162.
‘Pricke of Conscience Window’, The Stained Glass of All Saints, All Saints’ Church, North Street, York <https://www.allsaints-northstreet.org.uk/stainedglass.html> [accessed 5 October 2022].
Roger Rosewell, ‘The Pricke of Conscience of the Fifteen Signs of Doom Window in the Church of All Saints, North Street, York’, Vidimus, Issue 45 <https://vidimus.org/issues/issue-45/feature/> [accessed 5 October 2022].

‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World … the most important mediaeval stained glass in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022; click on images for full-screen viewing)