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'.


  1. Interesting post. I like to visit cemetaries, the older, the better. It's the closest we can get to time travel, I think.

    Found your blog via R.T. I have a blog: if you'd like to read my reviews. :)

  2. Thanks Sharon – I'll check out your blog later. Believe it or not, I'm off to another cemetery in half an hour...