The Best of Brit Lit
Philip Larkin’s Cities
"Which are the cities named or clearly present in Larkin’s poems?" asks the prize-winning poet Sean O'Brien in this week's TLS, as part of our celebration of the 25th anniversary of the poet's death. O'Brien obligingly answers his own question: "They include Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Chicago, Coventry, Dublin, Leeds, London, New Orleans, New York, 'numerous cathedral cities', Oxford, Sheffield, Stoke, Tel Aviv and Hull. And the most ubiquitous of these is Hull." Although he is most closely associated with Hull, Larkin was born in Coventry. These are not Britain's most exciting or glamorous cities; as Larkin says in his poem " I Remember, I Remember," "Nothing, like something, happens anywhere." "It would seem," says O'Brien, "that in coming to Hull Larkin had in a sense sent himself to Coventry."
Though he loved the English countryside, Larkin was always drawn to the city—"if nothing is happening there is nevertheless certainly a lot of it"—and to the public buildings found there, the churches, hotels, and hospitals. And his ideal city, O'Brien explains, can be found only in the mind: "Only that rare city which is both unvisited and intimately known—the Crescent City of New Orleans in For Sidney Beche'—exists perfectly, because it is a work of the sympathetic imagination, its hedonistic generosity of spirit lying beyond the reach of time and decay."
Two very different poets, Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean, who wrote in Scots and Gaelic respectively, sustained each other throughout years of friendship and collaboration. Each was "the greatest poet of his language," claims Robert Crawford; their correspondence, gathered together for the first time, shows glimpses of the drama and passion of their poetry, despite the fact that both were "epistolary crustaceans." But the importance of their sharing of language and ideas goes beyond their own work:
"The friendship between MacLean and MacDiarmid made possible in Britain the sort of general anthologizing that a boxed-in England still lacks: the collection of a nation’s poetic inheritance to include work from a linguistic spectrum extending far beyond modern English."
It is hard to avoid mention of Ireland in the news at the moment; in the TLS this week is an overview of the country, from 431 to 2010. England does not come out of the story well, says Toby Barnard, reviewing Ireland: A History, which contends that "the savagery and mortality that attended English expansionism and Irish resistance in the 16th and 17th centuries were worse than anything endured by the Moors from the Castilians, the Slavs from the Germans, or, by implication, by the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans."
Even the recent economic troubles can be laid at England's door, as the book "roundly denounces the failings that led the economic bubble of the 1990s to burst so messily. Habits of deference, decency and democracy that served the adolescent republic well were overwhelmed by less attractive ones: all maybe were copied from its nearest neighbour."
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.