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Thursday, 1 July 2021

New Month Old Post: Philip Larkin’s Foot

 (First posted 2nd June 2015. Contains strong language.) 

“There I was driving through Holmfirth,” someone said, “and who did I see but Dora Bryan getting out of her car! She must have been filming Last of the Summer Wine. She’s ever so agile for eighty. It must be the dance training.”

“That’s nothing,” someone else said. “I queued next to John Simpson in Lakeland Plastics in York. He was on crutches through being injured in Bosnia.”

“Well, we spotted Ed Miliband in the buffet at Sheffield station,” said a third, “and then Nick Clegg came in. They were taking the piss out each other.”

Why do we have such a need to tell everyone about our encounters with fame? We all do it. The warm glow of vicarious celebrity?

I can’t even resist talking about others who come across someone famous, such as the bloke at work whose cousin was actor Bernard Hepton, or my landlady who lived in the next street to Diana Rigg’s parents. You could write a computer program to generate it: someone you know sees someone you’ve vaguely heard of in some situation at a particular location.

Another landlord told me how, when he worked nights in the ticket office at Leeds Central Station, “that great pansy” Jimmy Savile would turn up after the dance halls had closed, and walk noisily through the station concourse in his long bleached hair and flamboyant clothes drawing attention to himself. “Here he is again,” they used to say, “that big puff, looking for somebody to talk to and hoping to cadge a cup of tea.” We now know he was looking for something else too, but at the time my landlord’s views seemed a little outdated.

The Savile story was always followed by another about his daughter having been at school with Philip Stone, an actor with a head like a light bulb who was in every other television drama you saw.  

They gossip just as much in the fame business itself. In my first job we audited a studio where they made television adverts, where they thought it important to let you know that B.B.C. Look North presenters came in to record voiceovers, and that they once filmed with Benny Hill. “He went off on his own. No one knew where he’d gone. We thought we’d lost him. Turned out he’d gone to the pictures.”

My uncle was one of the few unaffected, despite meeting hundreds of politicians and celebrities through his work in Health and Safety in London. He was there when lasers were beginning to be used in visual effects at concerts, and was annoyed about having to work late one evening to evaluate the risks. “What an awful week,” he complained to his trendy secretary, “just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. On top of that I’ve got to attend some awful pop concert tonight  ... Tom Bowie? ... John Bowie? ... something like that.” His secretary was not very sympathetic. My uncle was subsequently quoted in the press as saying that some young girl will have her eye burned out before people realise how dangerous lasers are.

Well, let me tell you, I’ve had my own encounters too. There was the time with my mum on the promenade at Great Yarmouth when she suddenly said “That was Des O’Connor”, referring to a slim young man in sunglasses carrying a light jacket over his shoulder, who had just sauntered past in the opposite direction. “Who?” I asked, and remained little the wiser because his show was the one we didn’t bother to see. And I once saw Jack Charlton in his Range Rover in the Yorkshire Dales.

But my greatest claim to fame is that I stood on Philip Larkin’s foot. I was killing time in the university library so as not to have to bike home without a coat in the rain, when I came across an exhibition of original poetry manuscripts. There were some by Stevie Smith, and one in Andrew Motion’s tiny hand about an aeroplane appearing over the brow of a hill. No one had heard of Andrew Motion then. I knew him through being in one of his tutorial groups.

Other manuscripts were by the great man Philip Larkin himself, the Hull University librarian. That’s what I’d been peering at when, in the limbo-esque silence, I stepped back to move from one display case to the next and trod heavily on something lumpy, which turned out to be Philip Larkin’s foot. His gloomy, bespectacled hulk had been attempting to creep past unheard. I got the full-on, forehead-focused, withering laser-glare, directed through industrial strength frames and lenses. Bits of my brain were crisped and frizzled.  Any hopes I had of becoming a proper writer were clinically extirpated. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes burned out. He skulked off without a word.

Even this story is pretty feeble. The poet Roger McGough tells a much better one about his friend Neville waiting for a bus in the soaking rain when up looms Larkin protected by “the black dome of a capacious umbrella”. Neville eventually plucks up the courage to speak, “I did enjoy The North Ship [a collection of Larkin’s early poems],” at which Larkin glares back and says, “If you think you can begin a conversation with me in order to share my umbrella you’ve got another think coming.”

My day will come! Imagine them all together, burning in some blazing afterlife inferno, condemned to eternal damnation for their vanity:

O’Connor: Tasker Dunham? I remember him. His mother smiled at me at Great Yarmouth. Wonderful people! They loved my show there.
Rigg: I adored him. I knew him so well. He lodged near my parents.
Stone: How coincidental! He lodged with one of my schoolfriend’s parents too. Marvellous sense of humour.
Savile: Now then now then! That was my great friend, Mr. Night Time Ticket Office Man. How’s about that then?
Hepton: Wasn’t he the clever chap who worked with my cousin?
Hill: Yes, of course, where I filmed an ad. I wanted him to write a script for me.
Motion: Well I had the deep privilege of actually teaching him. Very bright. Profound postmodern-romantic sensibility.
Charlton: Handy with his feet too. Could’ve used him at Boro.
Larkin: Handy with his feet? That bastard Dunham! There he was, hatless in his cycle clips, perusing my verse in awkward reverence, when he stamped on my foot. Deliberate! Said he did not mean to but he did. As if he’d leapt off a coastal shelf. They fucked him up his mum and dad. Filled him with all the faults they had. And some extra. Glad I had no kids myself. I was only going to suggest he write one of those blog things to develop his style.

 

Philip Larkin’s image is from the cover of his book ‘All What Jazz’. 

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a leading English poet, novelist and jazz critic, who from 1955 was also the University Librarian at Hull. He was a tall, large, heavily bespectacled man who carried a perpetual air of gloomy misanthropy about him. He could also be hilariously funny. The last paragraph plagiarises two of his best known poems, ‘This Be The Verse’ and ‘Church Going’. 

Dora Bryan (1923-2014) was an English actress and comedienne. One of her last television roles was in the comedy series ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ filmed in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. 

John Simpson (born 1944) is a veteran B.B.C. foreign correspondent. 

Ed Miliband (born 1969) and Nick Clegg (born 1967) were prominent British politicians who led the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. Both resigned their leaderships immediately after the 2015 General Election. Nick Clegg then left politics and is now a Vice-President at Facebook. 

Bernard Hepton (1925-2018) and Philip Stone (1924-2003) were actors from Bradford and Leeds who appeared in numerous British films and television productions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 

Diana Rigg (1938-2020) was an acclaimed English actress known for her major television, film and theatre roles, but perhaps most famous for her roles in the television series ‘The Avengers’ (1965-68) and more recently ‘Game of Thrones’ (2013-). 

Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was a well known television personality and charity fundraiser who originated from Leeds. After his death it emerged he had been a highly prolific predatory paedophile and sex offender of gargantuan proportions. 

Benny Hill (1924-1992) was an English comedian and actor. He was widely popular in his day but subsequently fell out of favour because many considered his humour to be sexist. 

David Bowie (1947-2016) was an English singer and songwriter who many considered innovative. 

Des O’Connor (1932-2020) was a popular English comedian, singer and television presenter. 

Jack Charlton (1935-2020) was a Leeds United footballer and member of the England 1966 World Cup winning team. He later managed Ireland. When I saw him he was manager of Middlesbrough (“Boro”).

Andrew Motion (born 1952) is an English poet, novelist and biographer who lectured at Hull University from 1976 to 1980 and served the country as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009. 

Roger McGough (born 1937) is an English poet and author who was a student at Hull University from 1955, arriving there the same year as Philip Larkin.

33 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post, especially hearing about Philip Larkin. Somewhere on the web I saw a photograph of Philip Larkin with Ted Hughes, the contrast between the two men was striking: Hughes in a leather jacket and Larkin in a suit glancing sideways at Hughes. I wish I could find that photograph!
    As for brushes with fame, I never tire of hearing about them and the more tenuous the connection the better.

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    1. I regularly saw Larkin in the library or walking about the campus and he really did have a permanent air of gloom around him.

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  2. Benny Hill sexist.....no, surely not. Of course you know what music will be running around in my head today after seeing the name Benny Hill.

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    1. Oh no! You've just put it in my head too. It doesn't halve it when you share it - it magnifies it.

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  3. Loved this post. I've never been able to understand that human proximity to celebrity need thing. The real question is 'do they carry cat treats in their pockets?' F has a friend that has a rude but effect way of putting celebrity status into perspective - but F won't let me repeat it here. Xx Mr T

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    1. Absolutely spot on Tigger. Phoebe too doesn't care who you are or what you've done so long as you're either good at rubbing and tickling or have cat treats in your pocket. Cats have everything in perspective.

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  4. Gentle humour will always make me smile. Fame is fleeting and is best felt when dead I expect Larkin would say.

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    1. One thing that struck me about this six year old piece is how easily forgotten people are. Nick Clegg who? As for Bernard Hepton and Phillip Stone - they were once instantly recognised.

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  5. Enjoyed this, now desperately trying to think of any of my close encounters with celebs...............

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    1. Thank you. I can't believe you've escaped entirely, even in Suffolk.

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  6. This is a great post that lets your writing talent and
    sense of humor shine. I've had a few celeb encounters and after the initial surprise you realize they are not that much different than anyone else.

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    1. Thank you. I enjoyed writing it and have rewritten parts for this re-post. I remember the 'My day will come' twist at the end springing out of nowhere while I was putting it together.

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  7. I have had a few close encounters but not with such erudite people.
    Do you know there's a bloke works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis?

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    1. Do they not have erudite people on the IoM except in the heartbreak hotel in the ghetto where hound dogs wear blue suede shoes?

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  8. Very enjoyable post, loved the dialogue at the end. I'm a Quaker and Quakers are the opposite of celebrity conscious. When I first became a Quaker I was recommended to read the books of Geoffrey Durham. Everyone talked about him and at no point did anyone ever, ever mention that he was married to Victoria Wood. I'm not sure they even knew.

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    1. That's how it should be. Nor, as my son would point out, that he is a member of the inner magic circle.

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  9. I was Malcolm Bradbury's PA in the early '70s when his PA went on maternity leave - one of the first to go on Maternity Leave under new legislation, I happened to be temping in the department at the time and was sent down to his office to work for him without any choice. He was a lovely man and at the time was writing The History Man and disappearing to his cottage in Driffield and not to be disturbed. His wife was a dragon and I did not get on with her at all. I did the job for just under a year.

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    1. I remember Andrew Motion being a regular visitor to the University and a friend of Bradbury's.

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    2. Wasn't that about the time MB started the legendary MA Creative Writing course? Many of the students went on to become well-known writers. Motion would have been quite young then - just checked, born 1952. I did English Ancillary (sort of half a subsidiary subject) in his tutorial group. He seemed a bit wet, but he would have been new and still only about 25. We were envious of students doing English degrees because they only had a couple of lectures and tutorials each week, but their reading list looked endless.

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    3. Yes, it was very much in its infancy and just starting. I met many writers when working for him, many of whom were visiting lecturers at the university such as Angus Wilson. Ian McEwan etc were a little after my time. Ian McEwan gave an amazing eulogy at Malcolm's funeral a few years ago.

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  10. I enjoyed this blogpost. The night before Clegg lost his Sheffield Hallam seat, I went to see a performance of "Julius Caesar" in The Crucible. At the interval, I went for a widdle and was surprised to see Clegg in The Gents. I thought to myself, "How come this clown isn't campaigning right to the wire?" Clearly, he was already looking forward to his lucrative Facebook position. I wonder what Philip Larkin would have made of Facebook - for that is something that really fucks people up.

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    1. Thank you. Clegg probably knew he had little chance of re-election after his two-faced coalition sell-out. Larkin would have been a top troll. He would have had much more fun with that than substituting vulgarity into printed books. He would have been banned from commenting on your blog.

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    2. I was never in The Gents in my life, laddie.
      Stop using filthy language in Tasker's genteel blog.
      You clearly have a narcissistic disorder problem, as that nice lady Soupe Spoon said of Haggerty, a man who in spite of his daily medications for Asperger's, never uses filthy language in his ramblings, and never bores us with prime numbers or barcodes.
      Yours etc. Nick Clegg
      P.S. Ever tried vlogging Tasker? My wife likes you in shorts.

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  11. *Larkinland* by Jonathan Tulloch.
    Review by Peter Beech of a metafictional novel set in the poet's world.
    The Guardian online. September 2017.
    Who is the real subject? Philip Larkin or the awkward librarian who occupies Mr Bleaney's old room.
    Mr Haggerty

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    1. How we comment measures our own nature, Mr H.

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  12. My greatest claim to fame is having had a strange relationship with Dora Bryan at the Theatre Royal, Bath. She was in her dressing room drinking gin, and I was outside on a scaffold, bashing stone. We said hello to each other every day for the whole run of her show.

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    1. What a brilliant tableau, Tom !
      A young stonemason, suspended on scaffolding.
      And Miss Bryan, in her dressing room, sinking a large gin.
      Bath is the perfect setting. The Theatre Royal is a gem.

      Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a theatre novel, *At Freddie's*.
      She modelled the central character after Lilian Baylis (Wiki).
      Miss Fitzgerald would bring your scene to life, and the actress would be drinking London Gin ... or Gilbey's.
      In another life I had a girlfriend who could put away a lot of gin; I drank it myself, with Indian Tonic and a lime sling.
      Gilbey's or Beefeater's.
      As a non-drinker I often stop at an off-sales and gaze.
      Haggerty



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    2. Tom Stephenson? Oh yes. Peeping Tom. He peeped through my window every day. He was a bit of what you fancy. You never know with men but I do like a man who is good with his hands. I tried to tempt him with a gin and tonic but he said he might fall off his scaffold.

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    3. There was no tonic involved.

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    4. I have drunk straight gin slightly warm.
      In feminine company. They call it boudoir gin.
      Hemingway said, 'Henry Miller had sex in the afternoon and thinks he invented it.'
      Haggerty

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  13. Very droll, as Del Boy used to say.
    I can see Dick Emery in drag, speaking your lines.
    The producer of Emery's TV show said Emery hated drag but his fans had grown to love his man-hunting lady on tottering high heels. Dick was no transvestite. He loathed having to put on silk stockings.

    As for Dora Bryan, she had a part in one of my favourite movies, directed by Carol Reed, *The Fallen Idol* (1948).
    It is about a boy who has to keep a secret: the conflict of loyalties which fascinated Greene, a friend of the arch-Stalinist Kim Philby.
    Get it on DVD. Black and white. Beautifully shot.
    Haggerty

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