Thursday, 1 December 2016

Philip Larkin, Poets' Corner and Haydon Bridge

Tomorrow, a memorial to Philip Larkin will be unveiled in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death on 2 December 1985. 

I can't let this occasion pass without offering a congratulatory salute from Haydon Bridge, the village in Northumberland where we have retired. For this was where Monica Jones, the companion and longest love of Larkin's life had come to live. He came here frequently to be with her from 1961 to 1984. In a sense he made his home here, no doubt a welcome change from the urban campus realities of his life in Hull where he was University Librarian.

Monica had a flat at 1a Ratcliffe Road, the house on the end of the Victorian terrace just by the eponymous bridge. This is the heart of the village where the road that drops steeply off the ridge carrying the Roman Wall meets the old road along the valley from Newcastle to Carlisle. In their day, traffic hurtled relentlessly past the house along the A69. Now there is a bypass and the villagers have reclaimed their streets and pavements. Outside the Co-Op on the corner opposite there is usually a huddle of people meeting and greeting one another, and dogs tethered to the lamp post while their owners are shopping. There are two pubs a stone's throw away, and a third just across the bridge. The pagoda tower of the late Georgian St Cuthbert's Church tops the townscape. Did Larkin ever darken its doors, if only as the curious but uncommitted visitor described in his famous poem Church Going who finds in this "serious house on serious earth" a place to grow wise in?

There is a blue plaque on the wall of Monica's house with a louche reference to a "secret love nest" - hardly a Larkinesque epithet, unless someone can tell me that he himself parodied the place in that way (which is not impossible). The plaque quotes him: "I thought your little house seemed...distinguished and exciting and looks splendid, and it can never be ordinary with the Tyne going by outside, a great English river drifting under your window, brown and muscled with currents!" It takes a poet to capture the sense of a place so succinctly. Though I doubt Larkin ever saw the Tyne surge free of its bounds, inundate the garden and knock at the front door as it did thanks to Storm Desmond a year ago on 5 December.

Andrew Motion's biography says that here the two of them "lazed, drank, read, pottered round the village and amused themselves with private games. The place always cheered them up" - "worked its spell" said Larkin. It's good to know that this little place wove a good magic on the poet. He was not the only one to find in these northern hills a source of joy and inspiration. W. H. Auden also loved the North Pennines that begin their steady rise up towards the high fells on the right bank of the river opposite 1a. Monica's house would lie in their shadow when the sun was low on winter afternoons.

I have long admired Philip Larkin. He had a marvellous ear for the sound of words, the sheer music of human language. On the day he died in 1985, we had a meeting of the Parochial Church Council at Alnwick where I was Vicar at the time. To introduce the meeting, I read aloud his enigmatic poem "Days".

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

I said I thought it was the job of a PCC on behalf of the local church to address this very question. It wasn't just for priests and doctors but for everyone since this universal question of what our days are for is faced by the entire human race. This was met with a certain bemusement. I went on to pray the Advent Collect with its reference to Christ coming among us in great humility, and coming again on the last Day (I emphasised that word in the light of the poem) to judge both the living and the dead. What are days for but to look forward to that Day, I suggested a trifle rhetorically. I'm not sure Larkin would have approved. But I wanted in a small way to pay tribute to the passing of a great poet. Soon after that, I went to work in Coventry, the city of his birth. I was amazed that Coventry had not taken the trouble to honour him in the way that Hull has done, and in a more modest fashion, Haydon Bridge.

The writer Blake Morrison will give the eulogy at tomorrow's unveiling in Westminster Abbey. He has his own way with words as anyone who has read his books, among them the brilliant memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? knows. You don't need me to add to all that has been said about Larkin since his death, how he has been celebrated as one of the twentieth century's finest poets writing in English. And although he was hostile to organised religion, he seems to have had a feeling, an artist's instinct for the inward - might we call it spiritual? - dimension of life. "I may be an agnostic, but I'm an Anglican agnostic." I wouldn't hesitate to place him in the forefront of those poetic voices who have shone a light on the doubting, faltering and believing of Christians like me. With T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the previous generation and R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings and a few others of his own, he deserves to be recognised as one of those who have unflinchingly gazed into the human condition and helped us to come to terms with what it means to be a man or woman of faith.

If you want a sense of his deep seriousness, read one of his last poems, Aubade. It's a profoundly discomforting piece, honest to the point of painfulness. In it, he faces unflinchingly the night demons of the insomniac, which for him mean the grim reality of death. He is shaken to the core of his being. Morning light brings no relief, only the bleak awareness of the one fact that is incontrovertibly certain in life, that we must die one day. Advent is a good time to read it, this season when we meditate on the four Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Was the poem inspired by a memory of Haydon Bridge in winter on one of those days the North East does so well, when the bare hillsides crouch under the weight of lowering gunmetal skies and a mist hangs over the Tyne as it runs cold as the Styx between the stones of the bridge?

For people of faith, "Aubade" it is not the last word. Religion is - isn't it? - more than just a "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / invented to pretend we never die". So we need other voices than Larkin's alone: John Donne's or George Herbert's perhaps, or a Bach Passion, or a painting like Grünewald's Crucifixion where we can glimpse how dying is the supreme act of faith because the crucified and risen Lord has walked this way before us. But we mustn't indulge our own pretence that death is not an awesome and an awful mystery. If the poets can give us the words and the courage to look into our own mortality, we must thank them for their gift, even if it's not a comfortable one.

If you're in our village and admire the Tyne "muscled with currents" as you stand on Haydon's Bridge, don't forget to nod in the direction of 1a Ratcliffe Road and the memory of a poet who pursued his truth and spoke it. And remember his words now immortalised in Poets' Corner: "What will survive of us is love". 


  1. Thank you for this, Haydon Bridge is on my itinary after reading your blog and hearing your conversation with the girl on the train. Since that train journey I have visited for the first time beautiful Durham and it's special cathedral. Thank you again Amanda

  2. Nothing wrong with coming from Hull!

  3. The Australian author Robert Dessaix has written a book called "What Days Are For". While lying in a hospital bed, after a heart attack that almost took his life, Dessaix chanced upon Larkin's poem 'Days'. What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved - and why? (Last two sentences taken from inside cover of his book). It's a book so worth reading.