How ‘Larkinworld’ introduces a side to Philip Larkin that we may never even have known existed

With my spine still tingling from Melissa James’ electrifying performance, I took advantage of being in the Royal Festival Hall to travel to the top of the building and visit The Poetry Library, which is currently hosting ‘Larkinworld’ – artist DJ Roberts’ exhibition dedicated to the renowned poet.

Philip Larkin

An interesting man, Philip Larkin. If you were to ask most people about their impressions of his poetry I suspect they would use adjectives such as “morose” or “melancholy” – “pessimistic”, even. Having said that, in 2003, nearly two decades after Larkin’s death, he was chosen as “the nation’s best-loved poet” in a survey by the Poetry Book Society. Maybe we’re just a morose nation?

Anyway, the intention of this exhibition is to present a different side to Larkin; according to its introductory message it sets out to “discover a more robust and life-enhancing in [his] work.” Accordingly, various items are on display which highlight Larkin’s passions, his friendships and the people who inspired him – whilst all the while snippets from his poems – including ‘To The Sea’, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Letters to Monica’ – run across a large TV screen in the background.

It’s a small exhibition – I counted no more than three glass cabinets – but surprisingly enlightening all the same. A big focus is music – Philip Larkin was passionate about jazz and from 1961-1971 was The Daily Telegraph’s jazz critic. DJ Robert has picked out a number of artists – Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and The Beatles among them – and scattered their vinyl records, postcards and ticket stubs throughout the exhibition. So passionate was Larkin about music that at his memorial service in 1986 Bix Beiderbecke played ‘Davenport Blues’ – an original ‘Order of Service’ is also on display.

In some instances, a little more supplementary information would have been useful – for example, there are framed black & white photos of various houses hanging on the exhibition walls, but no details about them. Whose houses were they? Did they belong to Philip Larkin, or to friends/relatives of his? Did he take those photos himself? I guess I will never know. That said, my interest was piqued sufficiently by the other items on display to go off & do some of my own research – never a bad thing. I found out, for example, that Kingsley Amis (whose novel ‘Lucky Jim’ is included in the exhibition) was both a close friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate of Larkin’s – and thought so highly of Larkin that he dedicated ‘Lucky Jim’ to him.

Unsurprisingly, literature plays a big part in the exhibition – in addition to Amis, works by Shakespeare, Dickens, John Dickson Carr, and Michael Innes all feature, exemplifying Larkin’s eclectic taste. The discovery that Larkin was an inveterate reader of crime fiction was another fact that took me by surprise.

Some of the other items I saw were seemingly quite random, although clearly there is meaning behind them – for example the postcard of a Mecca Bingo venue. Did Larkin enjoy bingo? It’s not inconceivable, I suppose, although my research is disappointingly unforthcoming in this respect. There’s also a postcard of Marilyn Monroe lifting weights – I have absolutely no idea why. Did Larkin and Monroe ever meet? The mind boggles.

A final word, about The Poetry Library itself. Currently the only dedicated space in England wholly devoted to the study and writing of poetry, it specialises in modern & contemporary poetry (from 1912 onwards) and has been described by the British Library as “part of the National Heritage of Great Britain”. When I visited, it was buzzing in an understated way – there were a number of people there, like me, to view ‘Larkinworld’, but also groups of students and tutors chatting away about poetry and life in general. Just another example of the invaluable resources on offer at the Royal Festival Hall and at the Southbank Centre in general – we Londoners are truly blessed to have this dynamic, multi-centre arts venue in our midst.

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