Last week I posted my review of Larkinland, a 2017 novel by Jonathan Tulloch which evokes the atmosphere of Hull as discovered by the poet Phillip Larkin. In this Q&A Jonathan reveals the inspiration for his book and what he really thinks of the city.
Q. What was the inspiration for writing Larkinland?
Over the past few years, I’ve been called increasingly to Hull. Not able to drive a motor car, I have the privilege of travelling to the city by train. It’s one of Europe’s finest journeys, with distant cathedral-like towers of power stations giving way to fields and flat lands, and then the great river up which the Vikings sailed. Add to this a copy of Larkin’s poetry with which I always travel to Hull, and you’ll see how I came to fall in love with both poet and place. The train is always the best place to really get to know Larkin. Just imagine he’s sitting with you. Of course, he’d be trying not to let you catch his eye.
Q. The novel is described as a mix of mystery and romance yet there is also a strong thread of humour. Did you set out with this blend in mind or did it evolve during the writing process?
Life is all of those things; they invited themselves!
Q. What was more important to you when writing Larkinland – the plot, the character or the setting?
Everything, in equal measure. What people don’t understand is that without Hull, Larkin becomes not much more than a skilled miniaturist. Hull is his muse.
Q. What was the most difficult aspect of the book to write?
It’s the easiest book I’ve ever written.
Q. The book is described as “A fictionalisation of Philip Larkin’s poetic world” How much of your central character is fiction?
Hard to say. A lot of the character is his poetic persona, I don’t know much of his biog details so very little of it is strictly autobiographical.
Q. Fictional works created around real people always seem to generate questions about ethics. Given that your central character bears such a strong resemblance to Philip Larkin, were you conscious of the risk of misrepresenting someone once called the nation’s favourite poet?
I think his shoulders are broad enough to carry more than my little capuchin monkey.
Q. Did you suffer any pangs of conscience about portraying Hull in a negative light just as it is celebrating its reincarnation as a capital of culture?
In my writing I have always loved places on the edge. In fact these are the only places I like. Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Hull, Zimbabwe. So hopefully my love for Hull will come out. What might seem like an unflattering light may well be the opposite.
Q. How do you view Hull personally – liminal beauty or beached mudflats?
I love it. After all, it’s a place with two rugby league teams. I concur with Larkin’s poetry, in which the place becomes a kind of many towered Byzantium.
Q. You conjure up a vivid portrayal of the boarding house run by Miss Glendenning and her rituals. Did this come from personal experience of such establishments in your younger days?
I had friends living in horrible bedsits, and I lived in my fair share of communal houses, but never a lodgings like this.
Q. Do you have a favourite passage in the book that you’d like to share?
Something like, ‘a dog followed him home, until a thrown stone persuaded it bloody well not to.’ I must emphasise that the stone did not hit the dog.
Q. What books are currently on your bedside table?
I am reading the poetry of Ann Ahkmatova. We were on holiday in Lindisfarne last week and we all wrote a poem in a different style. I have since been taken over by Anna Ahkmatova. I came up with the following lines:
heavy as a thrown brick
I carry Anna Ahkmatova
to read by the shore in the hare’s-foot clover.
Of course, after lines like that, the Russian poet would have come up with a devastating image.
About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales.
I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?
Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.
This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.
Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:
The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.
His second expedition is little better:
Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.
But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:
… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?
At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.
About the book: Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch was published in July 2017 by Seren, an independent literary publisher, specialising in English-language writing from Wales
About the author: Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels, including The SeasonTicket, Give Us This Day and Mr McCool. He is a winner of the Betty Trask Prize and The JB Priestley Award. He writes the Times Nature Notebook, and a nature column in The Tablet.
Why I read this book: This is part of my endeavour to showcase writers and publishers from my home country of Wales. I had just watched a BBC documentary about Larkin so was intrigued whether Larkinland would evoke the landscape in which Larkin had spent his prime years as a poet. Thanks go to Seren for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.
As a new month begins I’m sitting here feeling very sorry for myself . After a year of being stuffed with chemicals and radiation before three rounds of surgery to remove nasty tumours, I thought I’d had my quota of medical treatments. Life was beginning to look up with a holiday even being planned. All of which I scuppered by falling over while helping to set up a community event, breaking my humerus in three places. So now my dominant arm is in a sling making it extremely difficult to do basic things like eating and dressing (I dare you to try fastening a bra one handed). My blogging is curtailed because it’s so slow to type one-handed so if you find I’m not commenting much on your posts it’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with you. Reading is about all I’m good for but even that begins to lose its appeal after a few hours. Sigh…
Apart from nursing my damaged paw, what else was I up to on August 1, 2017?
I’m gradually making my way through the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. After a diversion to read The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius) I was looking for something from my list that promised to be equally well constructed and thought-provoking. Sacred Hunger ( joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1992) by Barry Unsworth gets that bill perfectly. It’s set in the eighteenth century when the slave trade was in full flow. The action takes place on a ship sailing from Liverpol to pick up a human cargo in Africa and sell it in the sugar plantations of Jamaica. It makes for grim reading understandably though Unsworth doesn’t wallow in details of the inhumane conditions under which the captured Africans were kept on board. His theme is the lust – the hunger – for money which drives men to extraordinary actions.
You couldn’t get more of a contrast between this and a book I just started today – What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen. It’s a collection of twenty essays about different aspects of Austen’s work. One deals with the names characters call each other and how this is often used to denote not just their different social status but their changing relationships to each other. Another looks at the question of the age at which its deemed appropriate for people to marry. I’ve read three essays so far as part of my participation in Austen in August and am impressed by how thoroughly Mullen knows these novels. He deals with details and nuances that escaped me when reading Austen but know I can see add new perspectives. Fascinating stuff.
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. I’m now down to 278 ( it would have been lower except I indulged with four new purchases and two ARCs in July). I had been thinking to buy a few more once the judges chose the Booker long list but when the announcement came last week I was underwhelmed. I’m sure there are many fine books on that list but with one or two exceptions it felt rather predictable. So I’m just going to get some samples and se if anything sparks my interest.
Thinking of reading next…
This month is All August/All Virago month so I have Good Behavior by Molly Keane lined up. This is the first novel she published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.
I also have Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch which was recently published by Seren ( a Welsh publishing house based about 45 minutes from my house). It’s part mystery, part biography, part romance set in 1950s Hull and recreates the world of Philip Larkin. Larkin makes an appearance in the guise of librarian Arthur Merryweather and through his poems which are woven into the narrative.
Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK is coming to an end. I ddo nt enjoy the one episode which showed the backstory of Offred’s husband but everything eelse about this series has been first class.
Listening: Since I stopped commuting to work I’ve not listened to anywhere near the same number of audiobooks this year. I did try one in the Aurelio Zen series about a fictional Italian detective but the narration was really off putting so I gave up after an hour. A pity because this series written by Michael Dobdin is meant to be excellent.
And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I’ll be feeling more perky. A Chinese friend tells me that this is the year of the Roster which is my animal sign. According to Chinese traditional beliefs, you may face big challenges in your animal year. However once those are overcome good fortune will come. It can’t come too soon for me! I’m advised that wearing red ( especially red underwear) will help. Time to get the credit cards out I think.