The Spit of Recollection



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.

It’s been a depressing day. For one thing, my hearing had gone wrong again: it’s a new one, & had gone wrong before—I’m beginning to feel, as it cost £80, a bit of a mug. (I forget if I’ve ever said that one of the few blessings of my advancing age is a merciful blurring of the sounds around me.) Then, one does get depressed sometimes. Has anyone ever done any work on why memories are always unhappy? I don’t mean really unhappy, as of blacking factories, but sudden stabbing memories of especially absurd or painful memories that one is suffused and excoriated by—I have about a dozen, some 30 years old, some a year or even less, & once one arrives, all the rest follows. I suppose if one lives to be old one’s entire waking life will be spent turning on the spit of recollection over the fires of mingled shame, pain or remorse. Cheerful prospect! Why can’t I recall the pleasure of hearing my Oxford results, having my novel accepted, passing my driving test—things such as these? Life doesn’t work that way.

[…] How exciting to hear you are thinking of turning your austere regard on redbrick academic life (if it is redbrick)! … I should love to offer to stand as technical adviser, but in fact even after 25 years I really know little about provincial university life. As a librarian I’m remote from teaching, examining & research; as a bachelor I’m remote from the Wives’ Club or the Ups & Downs of Entertaining; as an an introvert I hardly notice anything anyway … Oh dear, I really must end—I do hope you are still improving, perhaps not to the point of resuming work, but improving anyway. Sincerest good wishes.

Yours ever,