The Building

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March 2012

Nomination: The Building [9 February 1972. From High Windows]

Having suffered a minor stroke at the beginning of the month, I spent the first two weeks of December 2011 in Hull Royal Infirmary. This was my first stay as an in-patient in any hospital for over 50 years. I was occasionally shuttled by porters from the stroke ward to various other departments in order to undergo scans. It was hardly surprising, as I was being manoeuvred through the corridors of the hospital on those short journeys, to find words from Larkin’s ‘The Building’ coming to mind. Specifically:

For past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those,
And more rooms yet, each one further off

And harder to return from;

Consequently, ‘The Building’ was the first poem I re-read when I returned home, and one of the first I turned to in the Commentaries section when I took delivery of the recently published Philip Larkin the Complete Poems, edited by Archie Burnett.

Burnett reminds us that Larkin’s inspiration for ‘The Building’ had not been the Hull Royal Infirmary; the poem was in fact inspired by Larkin’s visits to the Kingston General Hospital [formerly the Sculcoates Union workhouse] on Beverley Road — a building I became very familiar with when I was an apprentice painter and decorator as the firm I worked for was regularly contracted to carry out maintenance decorating, both interior and exterior, on the hospital’s various buildings and annexes.

As with so many poems, Larkin scores a direct hit with ‘The Building’, crystallising the thoughts and experiences of hospitalisation. I’d recognised this previously, of course, when visiting others in hospital or when attending as an out-patient; but on this occasion it somehow seemed to strike far more significantly: ‘Yes, I know what you mean, life is like that.’

James L. Orwin

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