04 August 2022, The Tablet

How Philip Larkin used words to serve truth

by Francis Bown

Philip Larkin – the honest sinner on the brink of faith

How Philip Larkin used words to serve truth

Philip Larkin: ‘I bow my head at what you do and raise it again at the manner in which you do it’
Photo: Alamy/PA


Even his friends concede that the curmudgeonly poet and librarian born 100 years ago this week was deeply flawed, but few twentieth-century writers were more honest and wise about the human condition

Philip Larkin was not a handsome man. But he was an intensely attractive man. He possessed that magnetism which occasionally attaches itself to genius. I first encountered his poetry at school. Our headmaster was a distant member of the Larkin family, and somehow that made the verse even more fascinating. My teachers showed me how he took the coal dust of ordinary, everyday words and produced diamonds of intense luminosity. He was my hero and I supposed, even when I knew I was going to a parish in Hull, that I would only be able to worship him from afar.

And then he was there: sitting in my clergy house in the Avenues, holding a large G and T and fiddling with his antique hearing aid in a vain attempt to stop its whistling. We were going out for a lunch arranged by a mutual friend. At first my petit bourgeois sensibility was offended by his conversation. Respectable people in those days did not talk in front of a priest with a vocabulary so full of swear words, even if they were famous for remarks about what “your mum and dad” did to you. That initial silliness I put aside, and soon we were hurtling along in two cars towards a country pub. I say “hurtling” because I had the greatest difficulty in keeping up in my little Nissan, Philip’s attitude to blind corners suggesting a greater reliance on divine protection than I could muster.


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