As well as being one of Britain's most eminent post-war poets, Philip Larkin was also an architectural client, being closely involved in the three phases of Hull University's library
A new biography of the poet Philip Larkin has just been published which sets out to show that he was not just a miserable, bigoted old Eeyore as often depicted – not least by himself. This is all the excuse our editor Hugh Pearman needs to dig out his own 2011 account of the other side of Larkin – the client who built Hull University’s library in three phases between 1955 and 1969, so dealing with architects on a regular basis and even resorting to drawing plans himself. The library has now been extensively reconfigured in a £25m project by Sheppard Robson, which we shall cover later: photos here predate that. All credit to the various volumes cited of Larkin biography, memoirs, correspondence and of course poetry.
Philip Larkin, who with his small output of determinedly unshowy, unmodernist and intensely evocative verse became the pre-eminent poet of post-war England, was the university librarian in Hull. He arrived in early 1955 from his previous assistant’s post at Queen’s University Belfast. This was to be Larkin’s breakthrough year, with the publication of The Less Deceived, coincidentally by the tiny Hull-based Marvell Press, run by George and Jean Hartley. He feared that he might not land the Hull job on account of his poem Toads, previously published in the Hartleys’ poetry magazine Listen:
Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
‘Of course it will all be up if any of the committee has read Toads … I can imagine some dismal Jimmy reading verses 1-6 aloud for the benefit and discrete Myrthe of ye assembled Companie,’ he wrote to his old friend and lover Monica Jones on 18 October 1954 as he applied for the job. But he got it, and in true Larkin style was immediately transfixed with terror at the prospect. Especially as the job came with the responsibility of supervising the building of a brand-new library. His subsequent letters to Monica, published by the Bodleian Library and Faber in 2010, from time to time touch on this lesser-known aspect of Larkin’s career, as does Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography.
All this labour will probably be useless, as the local Fred & Martin will cook it up with the architect after I’ve staggered away limp with 4 hours’ talking
Anticipating the arrival of the new wave of ‘plate glass’ universities in the early 1960s, Hull’s University College, founded in 1925, had become a full university in 1954 – hence their need to expand the library. Larkin found himself on a fault-line between two architectures. The design of his new library had been entrusted to Forsyth and Partners, who had produced all the University College buildings there since the 1920s, in the neo-Georgian manner. The proposed library was a pared-down post-war version of this, ending up as a modest and well-proportioned two-storey brick range with large windows and a cornice, with a plainer, less successful three-storey entrance block. However, in 1958 Hull went modernist. That year the university commissioned Cambridge’s finest, Sir Leslie Martin, to draw up its overall expansion plan. At the London County Council Martin had been the lead architect on the Royal Festival Hall (1948-51) and as well as teaching at Cambridge, had set up his own practice in 1956. A Scandinavian-influenced avant-gardist much involved in the contemporary art scene, he knew Hull, having taught there in the 1930s. The days of the traditionalists were numbered.
All this, however, was in the future for Larkin, who was to remain at the university until his death in 1985, and oversee successive waves of the library’s expansion. Such was the initial urgency to get things moving that while serving out his notice in Belfast, he was already being sent the plans of the proposed Forsyth and Partners building in Hull. On 10 February 1955 he wrote to Monica: ‘The plans of my library came today – how glad I am that it’s seven-eighths planned! I have very little feeling for these things. I study tiny cubes and rectangles marked “Librarian’s room” and “Librarian’s secretary” and “Librarian’s Lavatory” & wonder if it will ever come to pass. What a farce!”’
Shortly after his move to Hull in March that year, he wrote again: ‘I’ve been concentrating on my library plans, drawing emended versions to scale in Indian ink, & shall have to write a memo explaining them… By this means I hope to cut the hideous argument & misunderstandings… All this labour will probably be useless, as the local Fred & Martin will cook it up with the architect after I’ve staggered away limp with 4 hours’ talking.’
To another friend, historian and eventual art curator Judy Egerton, he was more scathing still. ‘The library they are planning looks at present like a rejected design for a cinema. If it is put up it will be the laughing stock of the British Isles.’
Larkin got to work, especially on the flawed layout of the proposed new long-term library plan, which incredibly proposed to have books in one place, readers in another, and an administrative block between them. The university’s buildings officer of the time, Donald Campbell, later told Motion: ‘For the briefing of the architects Larkin did a stupendous amount of research and wrote treatises on the requirements – and indeed oversaw everything throughout the design and building period.’
Another love interest of Larkin’s, Monica’s great rival Maeve Brennan, remembers Larkin barricading himself into a remote top-floor room equipped with sloping shelves for maps and newspapers. ‘There he spread out the plans for the new building and worked on them most afternoons. We had strict instructions that his whereabouts were not to be revealed, nor was he to be interrupted except on matters of urgency.’
Soon enough he found that his new building was being weighed in the balance against new halls of residence, but luckily for him in those expansionist times, the university – egged on by its chemistry professor, later vice-chancellor – chose to build both (‘Prof Brynmor Jones much in his element – took me aside, gripping me by the elbow, to explain his “tactics” tomorrow.’)
A picture of Larkin at the time he arrived in Hull is given by his friend and publisher Jean Hartley, she of the Marvell Press. In her memoir she describes the day he first came to the tiny, shabby Hessle terraced house in which she, husband, children and the entire publishing venture were based.
‘I was greatly alarmed when I saw a dignified gent, slim, with dark hair (receding), very formally suited, serious and quite unsmiling. His frequent “White Rabbit” glances at his pocket-watch did nothing to put us at our ease. It was hard to connect his solemn appearance with the wit of “Toads” or the passion of “Wedding Wind”. With his chin well tucked in, he paced up and down our small living-room, his tall body bowed to avoid a head-on collision with the light bulb.
‘He later told me that this was a very lonely period in his life… Most Saturdays he would come bowling along on his enormous bike, the biggest I have ever seen, looking more than life-size as he pedalled down Hull Road, Hessle.’
By February 1957, work on the library site was getting under way. ‘Very busy day, yarning with the Ass. Registrar (Works) and dictating long memoranda to the Architect,’ Larkin wrote to Monica. ‘The former says “I’m as depressed as you are about this building now”. Still, action, as usual, has made me feel better, even though the building will be a freak and there’ll be a lot of what-dyou-expect-with-a-poet-in-charge-haw-haw. Holy God.’
In his biography, Andrew Motion remarks of this period: ‘It was engrossing but frustrating – almost everything to do with the library was his idea, yet he had to trust others to carry out his wishes. Often he erupted angrily, chafing at slow work and castigating the architects as “doltish”.’
This was certainly a stressful time for Larkin, who was doing all this while becoming a celebrity as a poet, recording for the BBC, and reviewing books and – always a hobby – jazz records for magazines and newspapers. He was trying to cut down on his smoking only to turn to increased drinking instead – usually bottles of riesling and beaujolais, interspersed with trips to various East Riding pubs. He agonised over whether to marry Monica (he didn’t, nor Maeve nor anyone else), and agonised equally over the seating plan for his library.
‘You see, there is a formula that says one ought to have 1 seat for every 4 students but I don’t believe it works for our kind of university: I fear we need much more – 1 for 3 or even less, in the absence of things like engineering & technology, agriculture, medicine, &c. We’re too library-centred.’
Come August 1959, the building was finally nearing completion. Not that Larkin was upbeat about it. On a holiday with Monica in the Shetland Islands he had discovered that he could not hear the larks singing as she could. He was starting to go deaf, a disability that was to make him feel still more isolated. He became even sourer.
‘The building is nearly finished and can be seen for what it is – the ideal setting for an exhibition of decadent bourgeois art. Some bits are awful: others are not bad. Others again have still to come and be seen. It is a clumsy, rather graceless building, lacking intelligence at all levels, but not without a certain needless opulence in parts.’
Motion recounts how Larkin, who he describes as ‘an efficient but lazy man’ was nonetheless ‘intolerant of anything slipshod’. Once he reprimanded his architect, Forsyth & Partners’ LR Foreman, ‘who sees nothing amiss in leaving a façade like a broken brick’. He also worked with the sculptor Willi Soukop, who carved two symbolic reliefs for the building’s exterior. One was an owl, denoting wisdom. The other was to do with the enlightenment that comes from learning. ‘Willi has the charm and instinctive tolerant agreeableness of the refugee, and intense blue eyes,’ Larkin wrote to Judy Egerton. ‘I quite like his owl. I wish I felt as sure about his Genius of Light, an abstract figure bearing a torch that is already scrawled in rough over the front door.’ It’s not really abstract, but Larkin’s reaction was right: the relief over the entrance today seems weak in that particularly sub-Epstein 1950s way, classical with an ever-so-light tinge of modernism. The owl is better. However Soukop was well-regarded at the time, and eventually headed the Royal Academy’s sculpture school. The Tate bought another of his owl pieces.
Larkin planned the move of the library into the new building with military precision, while worrying that the builders wouldn’t be finished in time, that he was over-complicating things and was saddled with incompetent subordinates. He escaped to London occasionally to go to the BBC, or to see his old friends Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest (‘We spent most of the day drinking… Everyone is having affairs with all the old people & lots of new ones’) but engagingly always preferred his East Riding solitude.
The library move started on 2 September 1959. ‘The Move is on us: alarm at 7 am, start work at 8.30 am, everyone, except myself, working like beavers, keyed to a kind of hysteria reminiscent of wartime gun-sites. It is of course fun (of a kind) & delightful to have one’s foot in the door of the new building, but it is awfully hard work… Today I transported our set of Scrutiny over [the famous FR Leavis literary journal] & locked it away in the new building myself… We treat our Scrutiny very carefully, to avoid having it stolen, but this isn’t proof against asininity (= “loss”)’
By mid September the move was complete, and demolishers were in stripping out the old library building. Again, Larkin reaches for a wartime simile (‘It is a strange wrecked string of rooms, like an air raid. At last I am free of that foul futile mockery of a library, fitting for Hull, a libel on me.’) Better still, he was at last in the room he had specified for himself, and this shows his personal tastes to be entirely domestic. Writing to his mother, he said: ‘My room is so beautiful I can hardly believe it. I’m afraid it will make everyone so green with jealousy that I shall be the most hated person in Hull.’ On his enormous desk (‘larger than that of President Kennedy’) he put a framed photograph. Parents? Godchildren? Lover? No. Guy the Gorilla.
Larkin was no more a modernist in his architectural tastes than he was in his verse, demotic language aside. Motion remarks: ‘At every point in the design, Larkin had demanded that the merely functional be softened by his instinct for the homely, so that a place for study also became a place for pleasure. “Everyone looks at the wallpaper I’ve chosen,” he told Egerton, “and scoffs ‘domestic’, or more specifically ‘bedroom’.”’ He liked bright colours, using colour-coding of subject matter as part of the library’s decorative scheme.
Larkin’s views on architecture (including churches, of course) were in some ways close to those of John Betjeman. He and Betjeman championed each other’s work against the avant-gardists, and Larkin’s sense of loss, of Old England being demolished for modern monstrosities, was similar to his mentor’s, as the poem ‘Going, Going’ from High Windows, 1974, typifies:
…It seems, just now
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,
That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be so hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries: but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
As for the new architecture sweeping in, his poem ‘The Building’ (also from High Windows) refers plainly enough to the new tower block of Hull’s Royal Infirmary, built 1962-7 by YRM and thus contemporary with Larkin’s second phase of library building:
Higher than the handsomest hotel
The lucent comb shows up for miles, but see,
All round it close-ribbed streets rise and fall
Like a great sigh out of the last century.
Alluding to illness as a kind of ‘error’ needing confession to the doctors, he relates this to the scale of the architecture:
It must be error of a serious sort,
For see how many floors it needs, how tall
It’s grown by now, and how much money goes
In trying to correct it.
Larkin sees the architecture here as ‘A struggle to transcend/The thought of dying’. A vain struggle, of course:
…for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark…
He first appeared in Who’s Who in 1959. He listed his occupation, not as poet but as librarian. His given hobby was again not poetry but ‘resting’. There was, however, to be no let-up with the opening of the new library, which he soon found to be deficient in certain areas. Planning for a second phase was quickly under way – the catch being that this was now part of the new university masterplan by Sir Leslie Martin with his younger colleague Colin St John ‘Sandy’ Wilson, who later went on to design the new British Library at London’s St Pancras. Architectural aesthetics were changing. In March 1960 Larkin wrote to Monica with typical acidity:
‘Stage 2 of the library is provisionally fixed for 1966-8 at a cost of £600,000! I doubt both these figures. Fortunately I had nothing to do with them… This reminds me that I found Sir Leslie Martin & his italianate side-kick St John Wilson sneaking into the Library at 6.15 pm yesterday so I gave them a brief tour. It was rather embarrassing, like showing two conscientious objectors round the Imperial War Museum. The only thing they fell on with glad little cries was an exhibition of filthy modern paintings on the landing. Of course, they didn’t criticise anything: it was just their miserable silence that underlined their response, or lack of it. It left me feeling like the proprietor of a Victorian music hall. Not that I mind that in theory – but for an hour or two it did seem rather garish, those reds & pinks & blues, & my room appeared like the madam’s room in a high class knocking-shop… The Library will be the swansong of the old style. After this it will be all Danish butter-factories.’
As things turned out, it was not Martin and Wilson who designed the enormous next stage of the library in 1966-9, but the largely forgotten firm of Castle Park Dean and Hook, who were protégées of Martin. This defiantly strange eight-storey crinkle-cut tile-and-plate-glass lump – its upper storeys curiously jettied out over the narrower lower floors – dominates the otherwise low-rise campus. It is hard to believe that Larkin would have found this anything but hideous, and it more resembles a giant pat of butter than a Danish butter factory in the good-taste Leslie Martin mould. At around the same time, the same architects added a modest northern extension of the original building, in brick with bay windows.
But Larkin’s concern was always less for external appearance, more for the internal working and study environment of his libraries. He wanted space for a million books: this building provided it. Motion says that Larkin (always an anti-intellectual) found this young firm of friendly London architects more to his taste than Martin and Wilson’s cerebral Cambridge manner. From 1963 onwards, he held monthly meetings variously with Paul Castle, Alan Park, Christopher Dean and Geoff Hook, always in Hull, sometimes taking them to country pubs in the evenings, sometimes with a girlfriend or prospective girlfriend.
Motion quotes Geoff Hook, who was impressed by Larkin’s focus. ‘He was able to by-pass obstacles by operating person to person. He knew it was a seat of the pants job, and therefore went straight to the heart of the matter, whatever it was. It was an extraordinary talent – if he’d been planning London Airport it would have been the same. And he had this sane sense of humour: he didn’t take the job lightly but he did realise there was something more important.’ Larkin was prepared for his architects to make mistakes, said Hook, but ‘he never gave the impression that he was going to fudge anything.’
Larkin himself remarked that ‘Librarians need to learn a new skill, the art of drawing up a brief for an architect.’ Untypically, he appealed for help, writing to SCONUL, (Society of College, National and University Libraries), asking them to publish a universal brief. ‘I make this proposal because I find myself engaged on the second major library building of my life without ever having been told how to draw up a brief or even learning what it is an architect needs to know before commencing work. If I am the only person in this predicament, then I gladly withdraw the suggestion but somehow I feel I am not.’
Larkin needed that other life of university bureaucracy, drawings and reports and architects and building inspectors to push against.
The universal brief was not forthcoming, and Larkin and his colleagues had to shift for themselves. Larkin learned to delegate much to his ultra-efficient deputy Brenda Moon, who, says Motion, would ‘rustle in and out of his office with a huge trolley laden with papers relating to the new designs.’
In a later essay, Moon cites Larkin’s own description of his relationship with his architects, thus:
“[It] was based on a card game I used to play when I was young – I’ve forgotten what it was called – but each player has a stopping card which can stop the game at any point. If I play the game of professional expertise, librarianship in other words, then the other two have got to say, all right, let’s go back to the beginning and start again. I’m not quite sure which card the architects should choose as their own – good architecture perhaps, by which I mean a strong streak of aesthetic rightness coupled with functional efficiency; and certainly the Buildings Officer has got to speak for his university on costs… We all try to play our stoppers from time to time.’
Some of this workload fed through into his poetry. In ‘Toads Revisited’ of 1964 he finally and famously embraces the toad work:
Give me your arm, old toad
Help me down Cemetery Road.
But what else would he do? He returns to the matter of routine in ‘Days’, from the same Whitsun Weddings collection, and my favourite of all Larkin poems:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over…
It all got so much that he briefly considered quitting and (determinedly the provincial) taking up a job at the University of Reading instead. But he sweated it out, and when the new building was finished in 1969 he once again appraised it objectively, as he had his first library. This time he confided in his own protégée, the novelist Barbara Pym, that it was ‘an odd building with a curious glaring drabness and far too little space.’ He was, however, proud of it. The building won awards. But now Larkin had a gap in his life. After 14 years of pretty much non-stop library planning and building he confessed he was ‘drained’. He took a six-month sabbatical in Oxford to research his Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse.
He would produce only one more volume of his own poetry, arguably his best, the lapidary High Windows of 1974. But by then his library work had became dull, routine, uncreative. He was forced to move from his beloved top-floor rented university flat in Hull’s grand if run-down Pearson Park to a 1950s suburban house of his own, which even he found uninspiring (he had always needed an attic to write). The light was fading.
He was of course always unprolific, always labouring to produce enough poems to justify a volume, one every ten years. In retrospect, it seems that the years of overwork building his libraries, far from holding him back, gave him the necessary impetus to write what he had to write. Such work kept at bay loneliness, sloth, drift. He needed that other life of university bureaucracy, drawings and reports and architects and building inspectors to push against. Without it, he could well have been lost.
Visiting the library today at Hull University’s still-pleasant campus, it is hard to believe that the completion dates of the two main phases are only a decade apart: you’d guess maybe 50 years. Harder still to understand how the first phase – narrow plan, with huge windows both sides – functioned satisfactorily as a library at all. Having looked around, I followed what I presumed was Larkin’s bike route to his former flat in Pearson Park, about 10 minutes away. The two places – house-girt park and campus - are leafy oases, well insulated from industrial or post-industrial Hull. This was an agreeable, settled, way of life for a man like him.
Larkin’s former workplace is named the Brynmor Jones library, after the vice-chancellor who supported him while never quite understanding the poetry. There is now a Larkin Building at the University of Hull, but this had little to do with him. Built in 1965-67, long, low, brick-and-strip-windowed, well mannered, it was designed by Sir Leslie Martin and his ‘italianate sidekick St John Wilson’ in the Cambridge-court manner. A double irony, this. Firstly, Larkin was an Oxford man, and secondly, his name finally ended up on a ‘Danish butter-factory’ of just the kind, back in 1960, he had predicted and affected to despise.