On the Larkin trail - statue unveiled in Hull's Paragon Station

PUBLISHED: 09:50 20 January 2011 | UPDATED: 11:58 28 February 2013

Sculptor Martin Jennings and Lord Mayor of Hull, Councillor David Gemmell

Sculptor Martin Jennings and Lord Mayor of Hull, Councillor David Gemmell

Philip Larkin fell in love with Hull. Finally the city is falling in love with him. Terry Fletcher reports

Poetry is a bit high falutin for Hull, or at least so some in the city would have you believe. Theres feeling that we dont do poetry here; we do Rugby League instead, says Prof Graham Chesters. But if that was ever true it has all changed thanks to a six month long celebration of the life and work of Philip Larkin, the citys adopted son who turned down an offer to succeed Sir John Betjeman as Poet Laureate.

It culminated with the unveiling of a bronze statue of the poet and former university librarian at Paragon Station on December 2nd, the 25th anniversary of this death. Prof Chesters, who chaired the Larkin 25 celebrations, said: In the past the city has not really made enough of Larkin as a cultural asset. Although he was born in Coventry he lived in Hull for 30 years and wrote his best poetry here, a lot of it inspired by the city itself. Our aim was to raise the profile of that link not just here but nationally and internationally and to make it indissoluble.

The success of the festival has been undeniable, from sell-out
plays and concerts of his beloved jazz to a scheme that populated the city centre with giant fibre glass toads. The brightly-painted metre-high amphibians inspired by two Larkin poems and all paid for by local sponsors proved so popular that 60,000 copies of a toad trail map were snapped up with even more being downloaded everyday from the internet.

It had all helped to reinforce a growing feeling of upward momentum in the city, which Time Out recently recommended as weekend break destination with its Old Town, Museum Quarter, the stunning aquarium of The Deep and an increasingly lively caf culture. Even a leader column in The Times asked recently: Is it not time the rest of England stopped sniggering and started remarking on just how remarkable Hull is?

There is now a permanent Larkin Trail which visits two dozen places where he worked and lived, such as the university flat in Pearson Park where he wrote his acclaimed collection, High Windows, and the lonely Holderness countryside which inspired him.

Prof Chesters said: The university has always been very proud of him and has a building named after him but the city had never really recognised him properly. That was a shame because his poems were much more about Hull than the university, whether he was writing about people in the park or playgrounds or along the quayside or even, as he did, about Marks and Spencers. Its true he wrote some rude things about Hull in early letters to his friend Kingsley Amis but Larkin was rude about practically everything at one time or another.

He liked the simple clarity and the no-nonsense attitude he found here but perhaps that attitude is why he has not been celebrated. We dont make a fuss. He could not stand the metropolitan falseness of London.

In the forward to a book of Hull poems Larkin wrote affectionately of his adopted city. He praised its lack of pretension and the way that, for all its sudden elegances, it did not try to masquerade as a York or Canterbury.

People were slow to leave and quick to return, he noted, and perhaps writing of himself added: And there are others who come, as they think, for a year or two, and stay a lifetime, sensing that they have found a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance. Arriving at Hulls Paragon Station carried an end-of-the-line sense of freedom.

So it is fitting that the station has been chosen as the site for the new statue by sculptor Martin Jennings, who created a similar bronze of Betjeman at St Pancras Station in London. Inspired by the line I was late getting away in one of Larkins best-known poems, The Whitsun Weddings, it depicts him rushing for a train, hat in hand, manuscript tucked under his arm and coat billowing behind him.

Although Larkin can still excite mixed feelings, not least because of allegations of misogyny and racism which surfaced when his letters were published after his death, the 90,000 cost of the statue has been raised by hundreds of individual donations from Hull and around the world.

Prof Chesters added: There is always controversy where Larkin is concerned and some question whether he should have a statue at all. But there is no doubt in my mind that he must be regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and some would say the greatest.

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