Born and Bred: Larkin Reflections – Four Hull Poets respond to Philip Larkin (John Robinson, Joe Hakim, Vicky Foster, Dean Wilson) Middleton Hall, 25 October 2017
This event in the Hull City of Culture programme, introduced by Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing in the University, featured four poets ‘born and bred’ in Hull. They spanned the generations: John Robinson had been ‘bolshy, and wanted to kick out the old guard’, including Larkin. Joe Hakon’s experience was quite different. He had read ‘Money’ at the age of 12, and felt that Larkin, like his beloved Charles Bukovski, ‘was putting two fingers up at the establishment’. On the other hand: ‘Let’s face it: he’s a “Dead White Male”‘. Dean Wilson, had come to University at the age of 17, already a poet, to work in the postroom and later the library, where Larkin reviewed the porters in a military style line up, a procedure Dean had rather liked. Vicky Foster had a different story again. She had much enjoyed poetry at school: ‘all the old poets: Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth’, and encountered Larkin’s poems at ‘A’ level, after his death.
The discussion opened unpromisingly with responses to passages from ‘Here’ and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. John Robinson set the tone, asserting that he was ‘not fond of “Here”. Being ‘used to the landscape’ the poem had little attraction for him. Of the description of the ‘cut-price crowd’ he concluded: ‘Larkin doesn’t know them. He lines them up and inspects them’; ‘he’s a bloody snob.’ Vicky similarly found the middle (Hull) section of ‘Here’ ‘a bit sneery’, feeling it described her grandparents who would indeed have longed for an ‘electric mixer’. All four poets, true to their local accents and working-class backgrounds, disapproved of the posh middle-class Larkin.
But things looked up when they went on to comment in turn on images projected behind them, chosen to distil the essence of the poems which they subsequently read.
John Robinson was nostalgic for the pub life of the ‘Hull poets’ of the 70s and 80s. He showed images of Sean O’Brien, Peter Didsbury and Douglas Dunn together with the Polar Bear and Olde Black Boy pubs and the Humber Ferry, where one could watch the paddles churning while drinking in the bar all day. ‘Marooned’ evoked the scene as the poets ‘tottered and guffawed our way down to the ferry’, to pay for their drinks with ‘ten-bob notes’. Now, sadly, ‘they’ve bridged the river and most of the poets have left town.’ In ‘Don’t Write ‘Poetry’ he lamented: ‘for most of us poetry doesn’t pay’, and in the delightful ‘Lock, Stock and Beryl’ he invited the reader to do justice to this ‘brilliant’ title him or herself, since he cannot do so, having behaved rather badly to someone in his life called Beryl.
Joe Hakim showed a photograph of his gran’s house in Arthur Street. It was she who had determined his future by signing him up at the local library at the age of three. Later it was essential that poetry remained something pursued ‘outside school’. (Larkin would have echoed this sentiment.) He recited fluently without a text and it was refreshing to catch the chiming rhymes so audibly. He praised Larkin’s work for its ‘clockwork’ precision of technique, though he felt that Larkin would have found his work rather shallow ‘performance poetry’. His first poem was a thought-provoking update for the present generation of Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’: ‘They fucked you over your mum and dad.’ The older generation has ‘inherited the future’, leaving the younger with reduced expectations and debt. In a similar vein he recited a sombre warning about the destructiveness of short term debt at high interest.
Vicky Foster’s presentation was more upbeat and celebratory than those of the men. She showed beautiful photographs of Bridlington beach where she had been an inhibited young girl and of an October sky over the Humber, where some of the significant events of her life had taken place. A photograph of herself with ‘my boys’ represented the importance of family to her work, and a chart of beetles and grasshoppers indicated that much of her poetry is founded on ‘bug imagery’: ‘There are moths living under my ribcage’. She became nostalgic about her schooldays around East Park and many of her pieces are ‘place poems. Her evocation of Castle Hill Hospital, ‘where we come when it’s time to go’, was moving and Larkinesque. Why not, she asked, end one’s days here ‘in good company’. As the leaves fall and the twigs of life become bare, perhaps we will find that ‘etched in the bark all along was love.’
Dean Wilson, had been encouraged to write by Larkin’s publisher, Jean Hartley, to whom he paid warm tribute. He also recalled the great Hull poet Maurice Rutherford, now in retirement in Kent. Dean showed a photograph of Sculcoates Cemetry where he had worked briefly and given a ceremonial burial to a rat he had found there. There was a haunting photograph of Withernsea which he remembered finding completely deserted one day, ‘like a film set’. The repeated phrases in some of his poems imparted a musical effect. ‘The future is medieval’ echoed intriguingly through one poem; ‘Dim the light sweetie’ through another, ending with a sad acknowledgement of the ravages of age: ‘Then dim it some more’. In ‘Eight Floors up, a visitor to a relative in hospital phones home: ‘The doctor says it’s touch and go. / The view is spectacular’. ‘Banker’s Lament’ elicits sympathy for a loveless man with too much money: ‘Love, love, love, everywhere. / When when, when will I get my share?’
For someone, like the present writer, familiar with Hull and the personalities recalled by the poets, this was a most enjoyable evening. Perhaps an outsider might have found the Hull accent, in which ‘toad’ and ‘phone’ become ‘terd’ and ‘fern’, difficult to interpret. But there seemed to be no outsiders in the highly appreciative audience. This was perhaps a local poetry-event for local people, but all the more rich and strange for that. No doubt similar events take place in Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow. As Larkin commented most of us live provincial lives, outside the metropolis.