Author: Richard Bradford
Illustrated by: Philip Larkin
Foreword by: Mark Haworth-Booth
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
For anyone interested in English Poetry of the twentieth century, The Importance of Elsewhere is a fascinating book. For those with a particular interest in Philip Larkin, it’s an event.
It’s the kind of large format production – possession even – that will keep printed books around a lot longer yet, the sort of tactile, visual delight that you think can never truly be replaced by something digital. For poetry lovers, opening a book as lovely as this – about a poet, no less – to breathe the fineness of the new pages, the hardbound solidity of it, is slightly intoxicating. For students of Larkin of course, it’s like some kind of Deluxe box set deal. If ‘Coffee Table Book’ and ‘Philip Larkin’ ever went together – except sardonically – here we are.
The book is part thematic biography. The text sections follow Larkin’s photo gallery of life through childhood, schooldays, University, libraries, lovers and walks down leafy lanes with his trusty Vanden Plas parked nearby – to the end. The photographs are not all Larkin-outward so there are many self-portraits, not ‘selfies’ as we would know these days, but often quite studied shots that Larkin would take great time over, as described in the excellent introduction by Mark Haworth-Booth. Larkin was a serious photographer.
The Larkin photographs often have a moving, saddening effect. Larkin’s late parents, for example, and wistful shots from lives that turned out, maybe, not as ambitions and dreams had hoped. This sense is strengthened because that fear of death, the horror of time passing – the shortness of life – that so marks Larkin’s poetry is underlined by these images of people growing old, lives changing, disrupted, and in the background, a cultural way of life disappearing. Particularly striking are the successive library photos – Larkin’s staff, Larkin overseeing building works, Monica, late in the deserted closed Hull library – that evoke on one hand, this broader society that is fleeting memory, and on the other, the haunting smaller human intimacies of people who have gone.
On the cover Larkin stares out at us, bright-eyed intent on the mirror in front of him and the composition he is making, hunched over his Rolleiflex. The way he is looking straight at us, straight down the years, perhaps says these self portraits were intended for such posterity – unlike some of his other subjects, who might have been surprised at the least if told they would feature this way so many years later. Sometimes his portraits of himself are so strong that you can’t help wondering whether he intended them to be publicity shots, whether there was some dissatisfaction with how others had portrayed him – and that here was a kind of truth as he saw it.
As we move further and further away in time from Larkin and our artefacts increasingly become more code than object – High Windows is now an unbelievable 41 years old – this book is a vital, insightful and at times nostalgic contribution to the work on this brilliant, controversial poet, an almanac of a fading Britain, and is very highly recommended.