Walking With Ancestors
Larkin in Wellington
Philip Larkin, one of the 20th Century’s most renowned literary figures, published his only two novels and his first collection of poetry while living in Wellington, where he began his professional career as a Librarian in 1943. Although he only stayed in the town for a little under three years, most scholars of Larkin’s work now count his time in Wellington as crucial to his development in establishing an individual style separate from the writers he sought to emulate, such as Yeats and Auden, and in moulding his attitudes towards life, love and relationships; the subject of much of his greatest work.
Larkin was prompted to apply for the job he later described as seeming ‘to have determined the course of my life’ after receiving a request for information from the Ministry of Labour in the autumn of 1943 as to his future plans. The young novelist, who was living at home with his parents in Warwick after graduating from university, had been declared unfit for military service and, in his own words, ‘rightly judged the inquiry to be a warning that I had better start doing something’! That something arrived in the shape of a job advertisement in the Birmingham Post for a Librarian to Wellington Urban District Council. With a starting salary of £175 p/a (plus ‘cost of living’ bonus!) Larkin’s motives for taking the job hardly appear to have been financial and the close proximity of the town to Shrewsbury, where his college friend and fellow novelist Bruce Montgomery (better known as the author Edmund Crispin) held a teaching job, seems to have been an equally important consideration in applying for a position for which he was essentially untrained.
'The Toad Work'!
After arriving in Wellington during December 1943, Larkin initially took up residence at Alexander House, 40 New Church Road. In a letter written from his lodgings, to his close friend Jim Sutton, the reluctant librarian painted a grim picture of his new occupation, famously describing his working day as consisting of ‘handing out tripey novels to morons’! However, it was certainly not all bad, as Larkin now found himself with plenty of time to work on his writing and was even prepared to concede the post did at least give him ‘the overbalance of pleasure I demand from any semi-permanent situation’.
However, his apparent antipathy towards Wellington’s antiquated Edwardian library was certainly not without foundation either. In 1977, Larkin wrote a memorable account of his early career at the Walker Street establishment, which hardly appeared to have changed since its 1902 foundation; indeed, the original caretaker/librarian who had been appointed when it opened was, incredibly, still in-post when he arrived! Amid dusty shelves piled high with long-withdrawn titles, Larkin found himself single-handedly maintaining not only the library’s inadequate stock but also its faulty boiler and gas lamps, over the course of a working day which ran from 9am until 8.30 in the evening
Between shifts in the reading room and lending library, Larkin took advantage of his antiquated surroundings to work on what he regarded as his true vocation; writing. ‘Landladies did not really want to provide fires in the morning and I wrote my novel in the library before taking it back with me to work at after lunch’ he later wrote. In fact, Larkin not only completed his first and only two novels, Jill and A Girl In Winter, as a Wellington resident but also published his first collection of poetry, The North Ship.
In this respect, his workplace proved to be something of a boon and Larkin reserved considerable ire for the ‘hostile surroundings’ of Glentworth, his Mill Bank home. Lambasting everything from his landlady’s cooking to the sound of bugles emanating from the nearby Drill Hall and the radio in his neighbour’s room, Larkin complained, in another letter to Sutton, ‘I can write at a pinch if my fingers are dead and my bones aching with the cold but not with a lot of rubbishy singing and music beating the air’. In later life, Larkin spoke of his need for deprivation as an artistic inspiration, which could explain why he endured two self-inflicted years at Glentworth before moving to his final Wellington address of 7 Ladycroft in early 1946.
Tracing the Poet in Residence
Aside from his aversion to the library and his lodgings, Larkin seemingly had little trouble acclimatising to Wellington life and many of his former haunts can still be visited today. At the top of Walker Street, opposite its junction with Duke Street, stands ‘Rasputin’s’, the public house Larkin knew as The Raven, a hostelry he is known to have frequented regularly. Next door, Larkin learnt to play billiards at the local YMCA, now a furniture shop, while further up Tan Bank, a nightclub occupies the site of the Grand Theatre, where he spent many wartime evenings with the ‘school captain’, his fiancée Ruth Bowman.
She was a pupil at the Girl’s High School (now New College) which stands in King Street, near to Glentworth and the Drill Hall, whose bugles were such a source of irritation to the young novelist. Although Larkin’s final lodgings at 7 Ladycroft are no more, a short walk back into town leads to the Charlton Arms in Church Street, where he entertained his college
Philip Larkin left Wellington in September 1946, to become Assistant Librarian at University College Leicester. While he was glad to escape the increasing workload and ‘hopelessness’ of his post, Larkin confessed to his friend Jim Sutton some regret at leaving and, in later years, clearly retained affection for the Shropshire market town where his professional and literary career began. In 1962, he returned to open an extension to the remodelled library building and appeared pleased to find many of the archaic traces of the building he remembered wiped away. Although Larkin seemed unwilling to take any credit, it was arguably he who had initiated the process of dragging the library into the Twentieth Century in the first place, having orchestrated many improvements to the lending library during his time in charge, when he doubled the establishment’s readership and book issues. In later years, Larkin remained scathing of latter day developments such as the area’s administrative subordination to Telford, which he imagined to be ‘a rather horrific place’ and ‘very unlike the Wellington I knew’. However, he still warmly recalled the town’s ‘treasured community spirit’ and individual readers he had helped, such as a boy he had introduced to the Sherlock Holmes stories, all of which seems far removed from the image of serving ‘tripey novels to morons’ more commonly associated with his time in east Shropshire.