August 29, 2014

Philip Larkin in and on Belfast

Philip Larkin by Ralph Steadman
Philip Larkin was appointed sub-librarian at Queen's University Belfast in June 1950, starting in September of that year. He spent five years in Belfast. Leaving in 1955 Larkin for the University of Hull. He said of the context surrounding his move to Belfast in an interview with the Paris Review:
"After finishing my first books, say by 1945, I thought I had come to an end. I couldn’t write another novel, I published nothing. My personal life was rather harassing. Then in 1950 I went to Belfast, and things reawoke somehow. I wrote some poems, and thought, These aren’t bad, and had that little pamphlet XX Poems printed privately. I felt for the first time I was speaking for myself. Thoughts, feelings, language cohered and jumped. They have to do that. Of course they are always lying around in you, but they have to get together."
He also said to the Paris Review:
"The best writing conditions I ever had were in Belfast, when I was working at the University there."
In his 1950 letter to Monica Jones, Larkin described the city and its people 8 weeks after his arrival there:
"A wide and cobble-streeted town, lined with frowning buildings in the late Victorian manner & some indifferent shops. I’m already fed up with anything called Ulster, Northern, Victoria, etc., also with the Irish male face (craggy, drink-flushed, with greasy black curls and a too-tight collar & the Irish female face (plump, bad-teethed, pinkly powdered, with a diamante lizard on the lapel)."
And:
"I should have liked a glimpse of Irish politics, as the nearest thing I shall ever see to the drawings of Mr Hogarth."
He gave a flavour of the politics:
"[Ulster Unionist Party candidate] Fighting Tom Teevan has organised a “monster rally” [November 25 1950] to burn effigies & generally impede the progress of civilisation."
And:
"The Irish are rotten with drink in my opinion - drivelling slack-jawed blackguards."
And:
"Belfast is an unattractive city. Oh dear oh dear".
And this about Queen's and the nature of its professors:
"The common room is infested with brash undistinguished young men who turn out to be new professors. This place went to the dogs long ago and now the dogs are coming to it."
And he wrote about Belfast in In The Importance of Elsewhere, written after he had left:
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch. 
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker's cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
Jonathan Raban in the New Republic in 1993, described Larkin as a "Loyalist" in Ulster:
"In Ulster, Larkin’s true-blue brand of Toryism led him to become a Loyalist, and while there he wrote a curious poem, 'The March Past', about an Apprentice Boys’ parade. This annual show of Protestant force rouses in him: 
'…a blind/Astonishing remorse for things now ended/That of themselves were also rich and splendid/(But unsupported broke, and were not mended).' 
His nostalgia is couched in terms so inexplicit that these lines might summon almost anything, from William of Orange trouncing Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne to a mild repining for the glories of country house life in the heyday of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. The essential logic seems to be that things were rich and splendid *because* they are now ended—-a thought that often drove Larkin to crocodile tears."
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