Charles Barr explores the complex relationship between Philip Larkin and cricket, and why his centenary year is far from a good time to invoke him as a spokesperson for the spirit of cricket – 2022 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
“If only Larkin were here now,” laments Duncan Hamilton in One Long and Beautiful Summer. Michael Henderson also invokes him in That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket, the main title a quotation from Philip Larkin. Published in 2020, both books focus, in an elegiac spirit, on the summer of 2019, which would have been the last pre-Hundred season had Covid not intervened; Henderson ends with the claim that Larkin “would have been rude about the Hundred”.
Larkin died in 1985, leaving almost no reference to cricket in his collected poetry. What is it, then, that makes him, decades later, such a tempting reference point? Born in 1922 – his centenary is now being celebrated – he is described by his biographer James Booth as “by common consent, the best- loved British poet of the last century”. Booth’s claim becomes stronger if one calls him the best-loved English poet of the century, his chief rival then being the more prolific, less disciplined John Betjeman, whose game was golf.
Larkin disliked abroad, venturing outside these islands only once in his adult life, to collect a prize in Germany. After five years in Belfast, early in his career as a librarian, he reflected in a 1955 poem on the experience of being “Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home”. Back on English turf, settling into 30 years of living and working in Hull, he affirmed that “these are my customs and establishments”, now re-embraced for life.
One of his English customs was indeed cricket, and in time he joined the game’s Establishment, becoming an MCC member in 1974, his candidacy seconded by Harold Pinter. Their friendship, based on love of the game and respect for each other’s writings, crossed a political divide: Pinter was a man of the left, Larkin of the right, verging, as he grew older, on the far right – with worrying implications for any project that might today invoke him as a spokesman for the Spirit of Cricket.
Pinter played the game, wrote about it, and earned a generous Wisden obituary in 2009. In contrast, it was only after Larkin’s death that the extent of his absorption in cricket became visible, through a succession of biographies, memoirs and, especially, letters. Living mostly on his own, he was one of the last of the great letter-writers of the pre-digital era. We now have three volumes drawn from a much larger archive, adding up to around 2,000 pages: Letters Home (mostly to his widowed mother), Letters to Monica (to his long-term lover in Leicester, Monica Jones) and Selected Letters (to a wider range of contacts).
These volumes are rich in cricket references, if you look for them. But none of Larkin’s editors or biographers shows much interest. When a cricket passage does slip through, it is seldom annotated or collated with other references. Authors, colleagues and friends are identified in footnotes, cricketers hardly ever: Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Miller, Hassett, Graveney, Pelham Warner are left as names on the page. But there is enough to help us trace his involvement in cricket, from his youth to MCC membership and beyond.
Apart from childhood games in the back garden, and a bit at school, Larkin never really played. But he went on to a lifetime of devotion: as a radio listener, a TV viewer, a reader, and a spectator, notably at Lord’s, both before and after his membership came through. His journey becomes vividly typical of that generation of followers.
In his Belfast exile, he tracks the 1950-51 tour of Australia by Freddie Brown’s team, woken by his alarm clock to listen to the crackly commentary on the day’s last session. Back in England, he welcomes the great advance of 1957, the start of ball-by-ball coverage of home Tests, writing to Monica of “listening to the endless cricket commentary… I took my portable wireless in yesterday and had it muttering among the shelves as I checked art books”. On a country cycle ride, he tells her of making a detour to find an evening paper to check the scores. When he belatedly buys a TV set, he makes full use of it for the cricket.
By now, they are going together each year to the Lord’s Test, initially with tickets supplied by an MCC friend, and cricket has become a way for her to measure their complicated relationship: “Do you realise that you and I have known each other ten years… three Australian tours [1948, 1953 and 1956], three General Elections? I wonder for how many more decades we shall know each other.” Working in 1948 in the Leicester library, Larkin had taken care to book ahead for the county’s match against Bradman’s side. Several more tours – Ashes and otherwise – lie ahead. For Lord’s, they stay each year at Durrants Hotel, east of Baker Street, and their typical packed lunch is dutifully recorded for his mother: pork pies, lettuce, tomatoes, bananas and cherries – better to bring your own food than risk the queues. In 1975, the David Steele series, he reports to mother on the cascade of Australian wickets on the second day: “We were all grinning like Cheshire cats, everyone friends with everyone else.”
It is tempting to go on quoting, and there is scope for a modest anthology, Larkin and Cricket, that draws further on the archives at Hull. Yet why is there so little cricket in his work written for publication? Reviewing a biography of Francis Thompson, author of arguably the greatest cricket poem, At Lord’s – “O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago” – Larkin makes no mention of it. In his own poems, there are just three references. One compares the crowds lining up to enlist in 1914 to the queues “Standing as patiently | As if they were stretched outside | The Oval or Villa Park.” A second recalls how, during childhood trips to the beach, “I searched the sand for Famous Cricketers”, a cryptic reference to the John Player cigarette cards of the 1930s which he hoarded carefully.
The last is more direct and memorable. In one of his best-loved poems, The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964, a succession of views from the window of a train heading from Hull to London includes that of “someone running up to bowl”. No cricketer could fail to embrace that image, the glimpse of a moment of action cut tantalisingly short as the train moves on.
And that is it. Booth notes the pattern by which Larkin’s poems regularly give us, with scrupulous calculation, only one instance, across his work, from among a range of possibilities, in genre, topic and vocabulary – for example, the verb in a famous first line, “They f**k you up, your mum and dad.” Just the one time. Cricket, too, has one vivid image – part of the control, the discipline, that helps make Larkin special. “Running up to bowl” is the tip of a cricketing iceberg, and we might now explore the mass that floats beneath.
But there is an elephant in the room. In a letter of 1978, Larkin explains his avoidance of the Lord’s Test against Pakistan: there will be too many non-white faces among the crowd. In fact, he uses an utterly repugnant combination of adjective and noun. There is a lot more where that came from.
Lovers of Larkin and his work either focus – like Henderson and Hamilton – entirely on the poems, or they scramble to explain: this was decades ago, and it comes from a private letter, written to a friend he knew would be far from offended, the right-wing author Robert Conquest. Larkin, with the same tight control as in his poems, famously presented a very different self to different lovers, friends, correspondents. The racism surfaces in letters to a small set of individuals, most consistently to Monica, who days later accompanied him to the Oxford–Cambridge match at Lord’s – where they drank non-stop – rather than to the Test.
Yet the bile would not surface if it were not there. Larkin scholars have played it down, partly because it erupts mainly within cricket, a strand of his life they see as marginal. But cricket was not really so marginal; nor do cricket people have this excuse. Wisden 2021 contained, along with a book review by Emma John that started with the two pro-Larkin titles, a mass of clinical analysis of the structures of racism in cricket, historical and current. Since then, we have had the scandal of systemic racism at Yorkshire – Larkin’s adopted county. His centenary year, far from being a good time to follow those two fine authors by enlisting him in a romantic spirit to defend the game’s traditions, is a spectacularly bad time.
The idea of that collection, Larkin and Cricket, has great appeal. But it will need to come with a health warning.
Charles Barr is professor emeritus of film studies at the University of East Anglia.