Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Other Philip Larkin

When the 18-year-old Larkin came across this gravestone in St Michael's churchyard in Lichfield, he was understandably perturbed. Indeed, as he wrote to a friend with more than a little teenage hyperbole, 'I reeled away conscious of a desire to vomit into a homburg hat'.
  He needn't have been that surprised, as the grave of the other Philip Larkin was in the Larkin family plot, where the poet was later to inter both his parents, his father in 1944, his mother in 1977. This is their grave (below).

  When his mother's ashes were interred, the Rector told Larkin that this would be the last burial in the old churchyard, which would now be 'handed over to the Council to be "landscaped" into a vandals' playground, or some such nonsense. I expect I shan't see all the old Larkin graves again ... as they will all be levelled and the stones taken away.' He notes (in a letter to Barbara Pym) that he won't be sorry to see the other Philip Larkin's stone taken away.
  Like many of Larkin's darker prognostics, his vision of what would happen to St Michael's churchyard was wide of the mark. The Larkin graves are still there – I saw and photographed them yesterday on a trip to Lichfield – and, rather than a vandals' playground, the churchyard (one of the largest in England) is being well maintained as a carefully managed combination of well-kempt graveyard and nature reserve, with wildflower patches and areas of woodland.
  Lichfield is one of my favourite cathedral cities, with little of the olde worlde tweeness and blatant tourist-baiting that mar some of them. It helps that it's largely a brick-built town, with a sandstone cathedral – no seductive honey-coloured stone here. It has a sensible, real-world feel – but the three-spired cathedral, its close, the large ancient ponds and the fine Georgian buildings create a very beautiful ensemble. And, of course, it's the city where Samuel Johnson was born and spent his early years (the Johnson house is open to the public and well worth a look).
  Johnson's parents, like Larkin's, are buried at St Michael's  (along with his brother Nathaniel) – but inside the church. Dr Johnson paid his last visit to Lichfield in the autumn of 1784 and, on his return to London, composed a long Latin epitaph for his parents, to be inscribed on a memorial tablet and placed in the nave floor above the family vault.

He sent money and detailed instructions for the memorial and begged 'that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive'. He died a fortnight later, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Larkin's remains are in the municipal cemetery at Cottingham, outside Hull, under a stone saying only 'Philip Larkin, poet'.

Friday, 12 July 2019

'Sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'

Johnson's life of Thomas Gray (which I was looking at today) is decidedly cool in tone; there was a natural, and mutual, antipathy between the two men. However, in his estimate of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Johnson is generous and, I think, sound, in particular and in general.
'In the character of his Elegy,' writes Johnson, 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning "Yet even these bones" are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.'
  Quite so. These are the stanzas...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, 
         This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd, 
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, 
         Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind? 

On some fond breast the parting soul relies, 
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, 
         Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires. 

And Johnson is surely right to conclude that 'the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice' is the ultimate arbiter of 'poetical honours'. Which makes you wonder how many poets of the twentieth century had such appeal, convincing the reader that his lines reflect the things the reader has always him(her)self felt – Kipling of course, and later Betjeman, none of the modernists except maybe sometimes Eliot... maybe sometimes Auden and Yeats, even Larkin once in a while? But the century produced nothing with such strong and enduring appeal as Gray's Elegy. Or did it?

Thursday, 11 July 2019

My Friends, It Was a...

Yes, it was a Purple Hairstreak, and I really wasn't expecting it so early in the month, but it was a wonderful thing to see. I was on Mitcham Common this morning, and there it was, settled on a leaf of the first oak I came across as I arrived on the common proper. It posed helpfully, just above my eye level, showing first its beautiful underwing and then a flash of upperwing with its telltale flush of purple. I didn't see another; I think it was a precursor of abundance to come.
  The common was gloriously alive with butterflies, mostly those grassland species that have come surging back after taking a bit of a knock last year when the extreme heat scorched the grasses – this year the grass is tall and lush. I was vaguely hoping that I might see a White-Letter Hairstreak, as Mitcham Common is supposed to be one of its hangouts, but in my wanderings I didn't even come across a single elm tree – the White-Letter's food plant and living space – let alone a representative of this elusive species. I think it's one of those butterflies that you'll never find if you go looking for it, but you might come across by chance in some unlikely place. If you're lucky. Meanwhile that unexpected Purple was delight enough.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

RIP Torn

Sorry to hear today that the brilliant actor Rip Torn has died. I think it's fair to say that he did well to make it to the age of 88, all things considered. I've written here before about Torn – the man who mistook a bank for his house – and his surprising casting as Walt Whitman, but for me he will for ever be Artie, the maniacal producer on The Larry Sanders Show. Here are some of Artie's finest moments – and if you stick with this video you'll also get the best of Hank Kingsley (the great Jeffrey Tambor). Enjoy...

Tuesday, 9 July 2019


Heaven knows television has little to offer these days, especially on the main terrestrial channels – but there's always Talking Pictures TV. This is the ultimate retroprogressive TV channel, offering a diet of old movies, mostly from before the Seventies, and old TV, with an emphasis on detective dramas and what the French call policiers. And then there are the documentaries, one of which – Our Weekends in 1949 – I've just been watching.
  This was the year in which I was born, into a world that now seems in many ways as remote as some distant past. The documentary is filled with English faces such as you no longer see, and voices such as you no longer hear. The clothes, the cars, the smoking, the awful teeth, the lean angular bodies, all are of another age – but so, most conspicuously, is the whole feel of the cheerful, sane, commonsensical England depicted in the film. These 1949 weekenders are English people going about their leisure activities – hiking, cycling, boating, playing cricket on the village green, picnicking at the lido, bell ringing, playing bowls and skittles, drinking in pubs that open at 6 and close at 10.30 after a jolly singsong (Me and My Gal). They are English people being, quite unselfconsciously, English, part of a single, amiable, cohesive nation, united perhaps as never before by the recently ended war. It looked like another world, and being reminded of it – and of the fact that it existed in my lifetime – was, among other things, intensely sad.

Monday, 8 July 2019

First Person

A word of warning to anyone planning to travel North on Virgin Trains any time soon (as I've just done).  If you venture into the on-train WC, you will be greeted, out of the blue, by a talking toilet, introducing itself, loud and clear, in the voice of a young Welsh woman. 'Hello,' it begins, 'this is your toilet speaking.' Actually I couldn't swear those were the precise words – I was rather too startled by this turn of events to be taking notes. The voice then goes on to explain, with a chuckle, that it's not actually the toilet speaking (No!!), but a Welsh girl who won a competition for the honour of being, er, the voice of a toilet. What the toilet has to say is that it does not want various items thrown down it – as it happens, the very items listed on the notice above the pan. But the message is so much more persuasive coming from a talking toilet, no? The first person is everything these days. And everywhere.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

We ♥ Europe

In yesterday's Daily Mail (I only buy it for the TV listings, honest – though they're not what they were), I noticed a quickfire Q&A with our Prime Minister in waiting, Boris Johnson. To judge by some of the answers, I don't think he was taking it altogether seriously...

Favourite Movie? Dodgeball.
Favourite Movie Scene? The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.
Favourite Poem? The Iliad.
Secret for Losing Weight? Eat less.
Political Hero, apart from Churchill? Pericles.
What Can He Cook? Fish pie (once, delicious but took a long time).
Message for new EU Commissioner Ursula Van Der Leyen? We  Europe.
Classical Hero? Odysseus.

The Iliad, Pericles, Odysseus... He's got my vote – or he would have if I was a member of the Conservative Party.