Someone once said that the great thing is not to be different from other people but to be different from yourself. – Philip Larkin in a radio interview
Philip Larkin never set out to be a librarian. In fact, according to his biographer, Andrew Motion, in his telling biography Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, “[j]udging by his treatment of books in St John’s [College, Oxford], he didn’t have much affection for libraries.” (p.109) This I read in my personal copy of the biography which used to be housed in the library of the Maze Political Prison in Belfast where it served a nine-year sentence from May 1993 until July 2002. It was borrowed by 25 inmates in its first fifteen months and then never again.
The reason Larkin ended up working as a librarian his whole life was down to chance more than anything else. After leaving university in 1943 he has aspirations to be a writer. He received a first in English language and literature. He had already begun work on the text that would eventually become the novel Jill but was struggling. He was realistic enough, even back then, to realise that he’d need another source of income until fame found its way to his door. So he applied to the Civil Service who promptly rejected him. He wrote to his friend Jim Sutton:
Did I tell you my Civil Service job fell through? Sfact. They can’t have liked my cheerful determination to be a writah [sic] and to use the CS merely as a means to livelihood. I am now perilously near being dragged into the Foreign Office as a hack clerk. (p.107)
This new possibility had nothing to do with Larkin. As a matter of routine the Civil Service had passed on his application but he needn’t have worried because the Foreign Office didn’t want him either. No doubt he did little to hide his utter lack of enthusiasm. He admitted to Sutton that he thought work was a good thing “in small doses. It canalizes one’s energy and stops one from starving” (p.108) but the simple fact is that everything going on around him was nothing more than a distraction from his writing.
For several weeks he kept working away on his book until one day out of the blue “a letter arrived from the Ministry of Labour, pointing out that his rejection by the Civil Service and the Foreign Office didn’t mean he should stop applying for other jobs” (p.109) – ah, such different, more civilised times – and so he picked up that day’s copy of the Birmingham Post, noticed that Wellington, Shropshire was advertising for a librarian, thought, How hard could that be? and applied.
His dad, Sydney, helped him with the application form, provided him with a green-bound copy of The Public Library System of Great Britain and told him to swot up prior to his interview. Larkin made a trip into Coventry where a helpful senior assistant spend a morning with him explaining “how books were ordered, accessioned and catalogued, and then given little pockets with individual tickets in them that were slipped into borrowers’ cards when the book was lent.” (p.110) Three days following his interview a letter arrived addressed to a ‘Mr Larking’ telling him that he’d got the job. Following a short exchange wherein Larkin confirmed the starting salary (and pointed out the correct spelling of his name) he accepted.
The idea of looking for a flat of his own was too much for the young Larkin to contemplate. He had been mollycoddled as a child and really hadn’t much of a clue how to fend for himself: “[h]e had never cooked a meal, never washed his own clothes, never had to pay a bill.” (p.111) He opted to rent rooms and take it from there.
The first place he settled on was 40 Church Street which was chilly, gloomy and not especially friendly. He had his own bedroom but he shared a sitting-room, kitchen and bathroom with two other lodgers. His landlady, Miss Jones, refused to allow him to play his jazz records which only added to his general misery. Jazz was always a major part of Larkin’s life. He once said he could live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz.
Larkin’s jazz heroes and heroines were a restricted group: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Eddie Condon. – Dr John White, Larkin With Jazz
I’d still like to think he might find something to like in some of the Bill Evans I’ve been listening to while I write this.
At first he hated the job but it grew on him and he grew into it. In later years, when called upon to explain his success as a librarian, Larkin said:
A librarian can be one of a number of things. He can be almost a pure scholar or he can be a technician . . . or he can be a pure administrator, or he . . . can just be a nice chap to have around which is the role I vaguely thought I filled. (p.113)
In January 1944, having taken as much as he could bear while with Miss Jones et al, Larkin moved to a boarding house in King Street called ‘Glenworth’ and the tender care of his new landlady, Miss Tomlinson. He was immediately disappointed with the place and told his parents:
There is plenty to grumble about. It is undeniably dirty: the food is scarce and occasionally badly prepared (we had an incredible kind of ray fish last week that smelt and tasted strongly of ammonia) and Miss Tomlinson is uncouth and moody. (p.123,124)
He also failed to bond with his fellow three lodgers.
Larkin lived in three different digs during his three years in the city. While he looked for the first he lodged in Loughborough, ten miles to the north, at his sister’s house. […] After three weeks of this he settled for the best alternative he could find: ‘a bed-sitting room – an attic really – very noisy with trams and 45 shillings [£2.25] a week, excluding lunch.’ At 172 London Road in Leicester. The noise (the trams weren’t discontinued until 1949), his three fellow-lodgers and the expense irritated him, but in other respects he was content. (p.149)
In August though his landlady, Joan Sutcliffe, told him that his room was needed for another lodger and so he had to make arrangements to move this time to an attic flat at 6 College Street. “‘Picture me in another garret,’ he told Sutton.” (p.171)
The only plus here was that, “the landlady … is deaf, and agrees to almost anything you ask her.” (p.171)
His next career move took him to Belfast. Queen’s University arranged for him to have a bed-sitting room in Queen’s Chambers, a tall Victorian hall of residence overlooking the main campus. On the whole it was very nice and he felt quite settled nevertheless when he wrote to his mother he said his room reminded him “of a very cheerless very bare hotel” (p.198) and generally bemoaned the furnishings and décor.
In 1955 Larkin relocated for the last time, to Hull, where he would live out the rest of his life; he died in 1985. The University found him digs on the first floor of Holtby House in Cottingham which was a small hall of residence reserved for bachelor members of staff and post-graduate students. He was not well pleased with the accommodation: Holtby House “is not suitable: small, bare floored and noisy: I feel as if I were lying in some doss-house at night with hobos snoring and quarrelling all around me.” (p.247) Maeve Brennan recalls this remark:
I remember walking with him once towards Cottingham, a village-cum-suburb just outside Hull. As we passed a field in which some smart new pig-styes had been erected, round aluminium huts with coolie-hat style roofs, he commented: ‘Those pigs have better accommodation than the University Librarian!’ – The Philip Larkin I Knew, p.25
After a few weeks he escaped to “11 Outlands Road, also in Cottingham, where the landlady Mrs Dowling was ‘extremely kind and thoughtful’, the food was ‘not bad’, but ‘the house was too small’ and the family’s radio ‘like a nightmare,’” (p.247)
It was there, or thereabouts, that he wrote the only poem he managed to finish soon after arriving in Hull – ‘Mr. Bleaney’ (originally ‘Mr. Grindly’):
'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook
Behind the door, no room for books or bags –
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fag
s On the same saucer-souvenir, and try
Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits – what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why
He kept on plugging at the four aways –
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.
About seventeen years later a mimeographed copy was passed to me during an English lesson and changed my life forever. Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration – you know the way we rewrite our own histories – because I had been writing poetry for a couple of years by then but it had lacked direction. The only poet up until then who had had any real impact on me was Wilfred Owen but the problem there was all he wrote about was war and, since we hadn’t been at war for some twenty-eight years and wouldn’t be for about another ten, war wasn’t really what I wanted to write about.
The thing that struck me most about this piece was how unpoetic it is. Yes it rhymes and the lines have a regular ten-syllable beat – through when you read it you’d never know – but where are all the babbling books and burning tygers? There’s nothing pretty here or Romantic. And the only mention of anything resembling Nature in the piece is some building land and that’s littered. Up until then I have never imagined that poetry could deal with anything that wasn’t in some way idealised and . . . well, poeticised to death.
Why though did this poem have such an effect on me? I had been in a B&B when on holiday once when I was about four or five but I remember nothing about the trip. All our other holidays were spent under canvas (not that we went on that many to be honest). All I can put it down to was that I was starting to ask the big questions at this point in my life, the whys that never seem to match up with the answers people say should be a perfect fit. Here was a poem that didn’t talk down to me, didn’t present any fake answer. Larkin told it how he saw it. I imagine he had read Nietzsche by this point in his life (especially bearing in mind his father’s political proclivities) so he was well aware what happens when ones stares into an abyss. I was not, although I thought what Nietzsche said was dead cool the first time I heard it, too.
The first five stanzas are marked by short, clipped sentences. In these he is looking out at Bleaney’s world. The last two comprise of one long sentence in which the narrator wallows in his own plight followed by a punch line which, “when it finally comes,” as David Lodge put it in his essay ‘Metonymic Muse’, “seems to spread back dismally through the whole poem, through the whole life of the unhappy man who utters it.” The narrator is not disparaging when he talks about Bleaney; he simply takes note. It’s only when he takes his place, lies on his bed, looks out of his window, that he starts to realise that Bleaney represents his future. There is no irony or satire here, a little humour, but that’s it. Just as it depicts a life stripped bare so likewise what we have here is a poem stripped bare.
After years of reading this poem I am not so sure about the “I don’t know,” at the end though. It depends how you read it. I know how Larkin read it but he was quick to point out that he only made recordings of his poems to show how they could be read not necessarily how they should be read. A lot of the time when people use the words, “I don’t know,” or more often these days I suppose, “I dunno,” which is usually embedded in a deep sigh, what they’re saying is, “I most certainly know but I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to go there.” I wondered if the narrator in the poem is Larkin himself. Larkin once said: “Don’t confuse me with the poems: I’m bigger than they are.” I can’t argue with that – I could say that about my own writing – that that doesn’t mean that a poem like ‘Mr. Bleaney’ doesn’t provide a snapshot and snapshots can be revealing even if they don’t tell everything. I think in this poem Larkin is both the narrator and Bleaney and what Larkin is seeing here is what Beckett saw in Krapp – his future. Both ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and Krapp’s Last Tape were written just as the authors were about to become famous; their lives could have ended very differently. In his book Philip Larkin: Poetry That Builds Bridges, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee has this thought:
The speaker may not “know” for certain, but he certainly guesses that Bleaney’s acceptance of or rather resignation to his unsatisfactory and unsatisfying condition and pattern of life was only apparent. As Larkin himself remarked, “Perhaps he [Bleaney] hated it [his life] as much as I did. The implication of the final gesture is that inwardly Bleaney was troubled (like the clouds tousled by the “frigid wind” which he used to watch standing absentmindedly by the window) by the “dread” of being misunderstood by people who evaluate a man’s nature and character from the exterior tenor of his life. Bleaney might also have been disturbed by a feeling of self-pity that led him to hopelessly rationalise the life he was doomed to live as something deservingly proportionate to his potentials. […] Thus, beneath its surface, ‘Mr. Bleaney’ contains an emotion of “distanced compassion” – compassion for the imagined suffering of a comical stereotype. (p.206)
Bleaney is a projection. We only get to hear what others think or imagine. We never know. Not for sure. It’s easy to assume that the narrator is disillusioned with his life. I think that’s perhaps the wrong word, unillusioned would be better. The narrator of the poem does his sums in plain view: this is who am I, this is what I will become.
For the record by the way, it wasn’t until 1956, at the age of 34, Larkin rented a self-contained flat on the top-floor of 32 Pearson Park, a three-storey red-brick house overlooking the park, previously the American Consulate. Later he moved into his own house at 105, Newland Park, Cottingham Road – just opposite the university.
Like Larkin none of my poems come with answers, not many anyway. I love trying to answer questions. Just get me started on: What is a poem? and you’ll see how much I enjoy trying to answer the unanswerable. My goal as a poet has always been a simple one: to write my ‘Mr. Bleaney.’ I may well have. I don’t know. For a long time I’ve wanted to do something with the poem but I never knew what and I wasn’t sure if I dared. Then one day I read about something that Carol Ann Duffy did about three years ago. She wrote to a load of famous poets asking them first to choose a famous poem and then to write a poem in answer to it. What a great idea!
Without thinking I opened up a Word document and began to write. I don’t know about you but I’ve often found, thinking just gets in the way. I’m not sure if you’d call what I came up with an answer to ‘Mr. Bleaney’ but it is does individualise the poem. I made it about me. It’s not 100% about me and I couldn’t even call it autobiographical because, well, I’d need to be dead because in the poem the father (that would be me) is dead. The question the poem addresses is not quite the same as Larkin’s. It is similar though, more refined. The problem is, when you have a corker of an ending, do you muck with it? Take for example the ending to the original Planet of the Apes. How could you improve on that? Well, Tim Burton proved he couldn’t.
Anyway, for better or worse, see what you think:
‘This was my late father’s room. He’d always
wanted a place where he could write in peace –
somewhere quiet.’ Bookcases, coated in dust
line the walls and crowd around a tired desk
on which there sits an ancient Dell PC,
a Pentium III. ‘Dad wasn’t one to
throw out something that still had life in it.’
Clock, ergonomic chair, lamp, no pictures
on the walls, no family snaps or prints –
‘I’ll sort it.’ So I pack a lifetime’s worth
in boxes and crates and stub out my fags
on this heart-shaped dish his wife seemingly
brought him back from America. ‘I don’t
want a thing,’ his daughter said, ‘Sell it all.’
You learn a lot about a man by what
he leaves behind and what he takes with him.
He loved the classics: Vaughan Williams and Bax,
the poems of Larkin, plays by Beckett.
The book he was reading waits by his chair
a receipt from Tesco’s keeping his place.
Once I expect he’d have stood here like me
and looked around at this now empty shell
imagined the things he might do in it
and shivered at the possibility
that one day he might think some great thought here,
might write something down that could change the world
or at the least make some sense out of it.
Perhaps he did. No one will ever know.