Larkin down the back of a bedside cabinet

Sometimes a lost manuscript just lurks for a while. It’s the way of manuscripts. Pesky things.

The acclaimed British poet Philip Larkin, who spent 30 years running the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University, died of cancer in December 1985. We have definitively lost his diaries. Betty Mackereth, his secretary — the self-same “loaf-haired secretary” of his 1965 poem “Toads Revisited”, in fact — destroyed all 30 volumes. “I was perfectly happy to destroy his diaries by first shredding them and then burning the remains because that is what he wanted,” she said.

The house where Larkin lived in the Newland Park area of Hull wasn’t cleared until December 2001, after the death of his friend, Monica Jones, who had lived there with him. The house was thoroughly inventoried by the Larkin Society, who wanted preserve his possessions for researchers and posterity. What furniture remained was sold to the Newland Discount Furniture company. All done and dusted.

Except, a few months later, in June 2002, up turned a red A5 notebook containing early drafts of two of Larkin’s published poems and a free-standing quatrain that was unknown: “We met at the end of the party/ When all the drinks were dead/ And all the glasses dirty:/ ‘Have this that’s left’, you said.”

The owner of Newland Discount Furniture explained that the notebook had fallen behind the drawer of Larkin’s old bedside cabinet which was destined for the dump (“wasn’t worth a fiver”), where it had remained for approximately a quarter of a century. The book then made its way to a local man, Chris Jackson, who maintained that he had bought it from a friend, after the friend had removed the cabinet drawers for repainting, although quite how the book was saved from immolation by attentive furniture workers remains somewhat mysterious.

Autumn_Leaves

The last of summer

This same lost notebook of Larkin’s turns up again in 2006, in the possession of a book dealer, and on sale for £20,000 at the Antiquarian Book Fair in London. The appeal to a collector is obvious.

You couldn’t publish the contents, as the copyright in all Larkin’s estate lies with the Society of Authors, but few other Larkin manuscripts are likely to come on the market given Larkin’s preference for leaving his papers in the public domain (although a handwritten poem torn from a notebook sold at Bonham’s in 2013). Larkin drafted most of his poems in large notebooks, the first of which he donated to the British Library in the 1960s. His remaining manuscripts nestle in the archives of the library where he was for so long librarian. Larkin campaigned for the manuscripts of all British poets to be left in the public archives. A private collector might therefore also take some joy in circumventing the wishes of a poet who is disliked by many for what they consider his personal failings in the areas of racism, misogyny and right-wing political views.

The unknown free-standing quatrain was part of an untitled but complete poem, written by Larkin for his confidante, secretary, lover and post-mortem diary-shredder extraordinaire, Betty Mackereth, in the 1970s. It was published by the Larkin Society in their newsletter in 2002. Its lines which celebrate love in the autumn of life have at times been appropriated for obituaries, and you can see why. “We walked through the last of summer, When shadows reached long and blue…”

Myself, I don’t let the personal attitudes of a poet bruise their lines, which are separate and have an independent life. And I have to admit admiration for any librarian who tells us in his poem “A Study Of Reading Habits” that “Books are a load of crap”. I am very pleased to walk these long, blue evenings with his poetic arm occasionally in mine.

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