Thursday, 6 July 2017

Your Chance to See Philip Larkin's Knickers

As I was nodding off last night, I had the strange experience of hearing Philip Larkin chatting with his mother. This was on some late news programme, and they were playing a recording Larkin had made himself on a reel-to-reel tape recorder - a recording that was now part of a big new Larkin archive exhibition at the University of Hull.
  The chat between Larkin and his mother was easy and affectionate, and they obviously got on well with each other - but the inevitable editorial line was to claim that this was an astonishing revelation: was this not the poet who wrote that 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad'? Oh dear - poor Larkin, to have ended up forever associated with that notorious line above all others. Note to the literal-minded: there are such things as personas, voices... It might have been more apposite to quote a poem like the tender, clear-sighted Mother, Summer, I -

My mother, who hates thunder storms, 
Holds up each summer day and shakes 
It out suspiciously, lest swarms 
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there; 
But when the August weather breaks 
And rains begin, and brittle frost 
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air, 
Her worried summer look is lost, 

And I her son, though summer-born 
And summer-loving, none the less 
Am easier when the leaves are gone. 
Too often summer days appear 
Emblems of perfect happiness 
I can't confront: I must await 
A time less bold, less rich, less clear: 
An autumn more appropriate.

The exhibition in which the allegedly surprising recording features is Larkin: New Eyes Each Year, and it certainly does promise to take the visitor 'almost unnervingly close' to the poet. Was ever a poet's life so comprehensively archived? Did he really mean for everything he left behind in his house - from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, from lawnmowers to knickers, from knitted rabbits to a statuette of Hitler (a gift from his father) - to be preserved and displayed? He took care to destroy his diaries (believed to be largely pornographic), so presumably he was content for the rest to be archived, if that was what the Larkin industry wanted. Perhaps he could see the funny side of all his preserved ties, duly archived, hanging solemnly on display...
  If nothing else, an exhibition this intimate shows that, as Auden wrote of Yeats, he was 'silly like us'. Or, as Jake Balokowsky, Larkin's imagined biographer, puts it, he was just 'One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys'.


  1. Just to be clear, Nige, by "Larkin's knickers" are you referring to the great man's own undergarments in which case are you suggesting that he was a cross-dresser or are you referring to a collection of Monica Jones' knickers which he retained? This is a scholarly point of great moment which needs to be cleared up if I'm to have anyplace of mind. I have copied this in an email to Christopher Ricks and Archie Burnett. I'm sorry to strike such a salacious note but..........

  2. Ho ho - my eye was drawn by the pair in the picture, the ones bearing the legend 'Do Not Spank'. Of the great man's other knickers I know little and can only speculate (or, life being short, not)...

  3. Might have helped if I'd actually looked at the picture, eh!!