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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Larkin’

You Won’t Get Anywhere Taking the Stairs, and Other News

September 15, 2016 | by

Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, in a rendering by Forbes Massie-Heatherwick Studio.

  • The Paris Review’s offices are in Chelsea, where we attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every day. (What, you thought all those people were here for the High Line?) But now there’s a new attraction in town: stairs. Lots and lots of stairs, beautifully arranged, and going nowhere. It’s part of an ambitious new sculpture that some have dubbed “the social climber”: “Big, bold and basket-shaped, the structure, Vessel, stands fifteen stories, weighs 600 tons and is filled with 2,500 climbable steps. Long under wraps, it is the creation of Thomas Heatherwick, forty-six, an acclaimed and controversial British designer … Mr. Heatherwick said Vessel was partly inspired by Indian stepwells, but he also referred to it as a climbing frame—what Americans would call a jungle gym—as well as ‘a Busby Berkeley musical with a lot of steps.’ ”
  • If you’re not into steps, just visit the city for the pavement. There’s a lot of it—and if you squint a bit or take the right drugs or just give it a good long think, you’ll see how interesting it is. Edwin Heathcote argues that “the pavement is the skin of the city, a membrane that separates the veneer of civilization from the darkness of the earth … The pavement is a paradoxical thing. It begins as a symbol of civilization and liberation but also becomes a kind of final resort, the domain of the homeless, of beggars and of defecating dogs. A city’s attitude to its street surface reveals much about its ideas of civic space, of ownership and generosity … ‘I think that our bodies are in truth naked,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in The Waves. ‘We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.’ ” 

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The Soviet Man of the Future, and Other News

February 1, 2016 | by

Georgy Zimin, Still Life with Light Bulb, 1928–1930. Image via NYRB

  • Philip Larkin’s poems and letters present him as misanthropic, hard-hearted, and above all miserable—but he moonlighted as a photographer, and his work in the medium shows a dramatically different side of him. “In their sociability, tenderness, and sweep, the photographs complicate the caricature of Larkin as England’s laureate of despair, squeezing out lines between shifts as a university librarian … Rather than a poet committed to monkish isolation and routine, Larkin the photographer appears as an eager traveller through Britain and Ireland, with [Monica] Jones often in tow … Larkin kept these travels, and the photographs they inspired, a secret from pen pals like Kingsley Amis, for whom he reserved obscenity-filled reports of his own bitterness and alienation—his wide-eyed curiosity replaced by an ironic sneer.”
  • A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum, “The Power of Pictures,” looks at the revolutionary intent of early Soviet photography and film: “Russia’s new political masters wanted to create a new society and a ‘new Soviet man’ … Many of the best-known avant-garde artists embraced this task with enthusiasm: some felt as though their art was the engine driving history. Artists like El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Stepanova, Goncharova, Malevich, Mayakovsky, and Tatlin—to varying degrees influenced by Cubism, Futurism, and other western European movements, as well as by Russian folk traditions—had been making work that in different ways sought to redefine the very notion of art … Photography was the perfect medium for promoting the new state order. Its use in newspapers, magazines, posters, journals, and books as something other than portraiture was a new phenomenon. It was by definition ‘modern’ and ‘forward-looking’—a non-elitist medium for the age of mechanical reproduction.”
  • We’ve all tired of the manic-pixie dream girl, that brazen testament to the narrowness of the male imagination. But John Green, in his young-adult novels, gives the stereotype considerably more depth: “In Green’s novels, there is considerable tension between the potent appeal of his manic pixie characters, the excitement and fun they bring into the narrators’ lives, and the messages these characters impart about their own lives and identities. It is only through celebrating the quirky charisma of manic pixie dream girls and fully exploring their attraction that he is able to show their accompanying problems … In his most complex work, he deconstructs the type, showing readers the pitfalls of defining others in narrowed ways … ”
  • Afronauts, the Ghanaian director Frances Bodomo’s new film, tells the little-known story of the Zambian space program, which mounted an ambitious attempt to send twelve astronauts to the moon in the sixties. “Zambia’s landscape isn’t really arid desert; it’s not really desolate,” Bodomo says. “And this is where the sci-fi comes into it, because you can take liberties and telling an alternative history comes into to it. You know it’s wonderful that they’re already on this landscape that already feels like the moon, that already feels like they’re already where they’re going. That feels like the message at the end of the film, that they’re already where they always wanted to be. The loneliness and the pain and the self-negation that exists here is what it’s going to be up there. The trials and tribulations here are going to be up there. Visually, they’re already in their dream space.”
  • Concrete, simplicity, utopia—let’s hear it for brutalism, people. Put your hands together for brutalism. A new book by Christopher Beanland argues that we must learn to love brutalist architecture, and that there’s plenty to love in it: “The key thing about concrete, Beanland argues, is it can span great distances (enabling architects to construct stronger and more spacious buildings) and be stretched into wild shapes, from ziggurats and beehives to flying saucers … Beanland believes our concrete nostalgia is a protest against the greed of the current housing market, with cities like London being bought up by the international super-rich.”

Dressed for Success

October 21, 2015 | by

Barbara Pym. Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society

Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress and shoe designer, has named a shoe after Donna Tartt, the writer. The Tartt is a glittery Mary Jane with a chunky low heel. The color is called Scintillate. It retails for $385 and sold out within hours on 

Here’s how Neiman Marcus describes Parker’s shoe line:

She became a fashion icon starring as the quintessential shoe-obsessed New Yorker. Now Sarah Jessica Parker is taking the next natural step: designing her shoe collection. The SJP Collection is her own expression of style with personal touches woven throughout. Take for instance, the grosgrain ribbon details. Adorning every shoe, they’re a nod to the ribbons Parker wore in her hair as a young girl. Some design elements borrow from the legendary wardrobe she wore as Carrie in the show Sex in the City. Even the names of each shoe, such as “Sophia” and “Raquel,” reference her favorite fashion influencers. To create the collection, Parker turned to a familiar name in the industry. George Malkemus (the shoe-guru himself) teamed up to share his thirty years of design expertise. The results? Classic styles that feel as current now as they will in seasons to come. And to ensure they’ll last, every pair has been crafted by artisans in Italy.

But with all respect to Parker and “the Tartt,” when I think of literary fashion influencers, I think of Barbara Pym. Read More »

Immoral Situations, and Other News

June 29, 2015 | by

Tess harassed by Alec D'Urberville, from the monthly serialization of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in The Graphic, 1891.

  • Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
  • Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
  • From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
  • Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.
  • Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”

The Spit of Recollection

June 2, 2015 | by

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin.

A letter from Philip Larkin to Barbara Pym, July 18, 1971. The pair enjoyed a long, warm correspondence beginning in 1961; they met, at last, in 1975, at the Randolph in Oxford. “I shall probably be wearing a beige tweed suit or a Welsh tweed cape if colder,” Pym wrote in advance. “I shall be looking rather anxious, I expect.” In 1977, Larkin helped Pym find a wider audience by choosing her as the most underrated writer of the century.

Duke’s Head Hotel, King’s Lynn,

Dear Barbara,

I have a theory that “holidays” evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kin of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life. You’re about to point out the essential fallacy in this, viz., that we aren’t h. & c. in our daily lives, but it’s too late now, the evolution has taken place, and we do the world’s will, not our own, as Jack Tanner says in Man & Superman. Anyway, every year I take my mother away for a week, & this is it. God knows why I chose this place—well, there are certain basic requirements—must be fairly near where she lives, must have single rooms with private bathrooms & lift, must for preference be near the sea … even so, one can make grave errors, & I rather think this is one of them. One forgets that nobody stays in hotels these days except businessmen & American tourists: the food is geared to the business lunch or the steak-platter trade: portion-control is rampant, and the materials cheap anyway (or so I guess: three lamb chops I had were three uncuttable unchewable unanswerable arguments for entry into EEC if—as I suspect—they had made the frozen journey from New Zealand). The presence of the hotel in the Good Food Guide is nothing short of farce. Of course it’s a Trust House, which guarantees a kind of depersonalized dullness. Never stay at a Trust House. Read More »

Urgent Questions for Librarians, and Other News

June 2, 2015 | by


A question to an NYPL librarian from October 1976. Photo: NYPL, via the Guardian

  • “My idea of hell on earth,” Philip Larkin wrote once, “is a literary party.” He had in mind the Oxford parties of his era, which, much like the Oxford parties of this era, comprised “a lot of sherry drill with important people.” But what if those parties were in fact really entertaining, as at least one guest avows they were? “God, they were fun. Ever since Mrs. Dylan Thomas, at a literary party, stuck her elbow into the bowl of ice cream that T. S. Eliot was eating from, before presenting it to the great poet with the instruction to ‘Lick it off,’ these things have been democratic, argumentative and often memorable.”
  • “Please give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” “What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance?” “Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it?” Questions for librarians at the New York Public Library before there was the Internet.
  • Saul Bellow’s portraitist remembers their encounter: “Bellow talked all the while, about life in New York when he was younger, his cohorts and various writers. What a duplistic moment for me: I had to ask him to be quiet so I could take some close-ups. He was fidgety even while cooperating. He picked up a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and began reading, first quietly, and then aloud. I listened for a few minutes, and cringing apologetically, shushed him again.”
  • If Louise Erdrich could go back in time, she’d go to prison, as long as the company was good: “I am stranded for a few days in a comfortable jail cell with Walt Whitman and Henry James. I take one side of the room, share a bunk with Emily Dickinson. We listen in on their awkward conversations, exchange sharp glances of amusement.”
  • Max Mathews, who died in April, wasn’t the first person to make sounds with a computer—but his experiments with an IBM 704 mainframe in 1957 were the first to use “a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear.” He was the first computer musician: “He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition … to foundational research in real-time performance … Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton.”