Monday, October 7, 2019

Remembering the Philip Larkin Society Forum

Sometimes I like to use this blog to memorialize something which would otherwise go unmentioned on the internet-- for instance, this blog post on the Allen Library project library, where I did a training course in 2001. I was pleased when that post received several comments from people who'd been involved with the Allen Library in some way.

Recently, it occurred to me to write a blog post about the Philip Larkin Society Forum, on which I was active for a few years-- perhaps two or three. It has disappeared almost without a trace now-- I can only find a handful of references to it on the internet, all of them oblique.

Philip Larkin was, of course, a British poet, novelist, and librarian who died in 1985. He is famous for his melancholy, his traditional verse, his unfashionable conservatism, and his fear of death-- amongst other things.

I'd been a fan of Philip Larkin since I encountered his poetry in The Palgrave Treasury of Golden Verse (an updated edition, of course), which I read very slowly and very carefully over several months in my teenage years.

It seems to me as though the popularity of Larkin has burgeoned all through my lifetime. He was never by any means obscure-- he turned down the Poet Laureateship, since (being a curmudgeon) he feared it would make him even more of a public figure than he already was. But his star seems to ascend higher and higher all the time, to the extent that he now seems accepted as the outstanding British poet of the twentieth century (which he was)-- despite his unfashionable poetry and politics.

But before I continue on the subject of Larkin, a word about internet forums.

Internet forums seem to exist somewhat outside the pale of intellectual or cultural respectability. It's not that people are ashamed to contribute to them, exactly, but they seem to be viewed (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson on the subject of landscape gardening) as "rather the sport than the business of human reason".

And yet, participation in internet forums is quite often mentioned as an important stage in the development of somebody's opinions-- especially when it comes to people around my age, who are rather conservative or right-wing in their views.

What value has all this writing on the internet? I was always reluctant to mention anything I had written on the internet to my father, since he seemed quite disapproving of it (at worst) and dismissive of it (at best). And yet, he eagerly read anything I had published in print. And people in general seem far more respectful of printed writing than of writing in cyberspace.

But surely they feed into each other? I'm sure that the thousands upon thousands of words that I've typed on the internet-- on this blog, on internet forums, on Amazon reviews, on social media, and in so many other places-- have made me a better writer, and helped me to develop my thinking (such as it is). In fact, I often find my mind returning to debates and discussion on the Philip Larkin Society Forum, in the faraway days of yore.

Don't get me wrong-- as a traditionalist, I think it's only right that time-hallowed formats such as the magazine and the book should enjoy a prestige greater than an internet forum or a comments section on a blog. But that doesn't mean we should be completely dismissive of writing on the internet.

I discovered the Philip Larkin Society page almost as soon as I started using the internet, around 2001. (Actually, I first logged onto it on the half-an-hour "internet time" we were allowed in the Allen Library, which now seems rather quaint.) But I didn't start posting there until around 2005, and I think it was around 2005-2006 that I became a regular. I was one of about half-a-dozen regulars, along with a larger group of semi-regulars.

Philip Larkin's poetry was the primary subject for discussion, of course. But we also discussed other poets, other literary topics, and pretty much everything and anything.

I was feeling quite depressed, at this time of my life. I felt I was drifting, and my self-belief and self-esteem were in the basement. I was also feeling depressed about society and culture. I was becoming increasingly conservative, but I had no religious faith.

This last characteristic was one I shared with all the forum regulars. They were all atheists and unbelievers. The only religious member was a semi-regular, who used the name "Goofy". I remember, in one discussion, he asserted that he knew God existed. This baffled me, although I rather envied him.

Larkin, as I have mentioned, was noted for his fear of death. (His later masterpiece "Aubade", in particular, articulates his terror of extinction: "Nothing more terrible, nothing more true". Religion was "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die.") I remember one discussion on whether Larkin's poetry provided any kind of comfort or meaning in the face of mortality. One regular described a recent brush with the Grim Reaper. The consensus seemed to be that poetry provided some comfort, but very little.

I think it's fair to say that everybody on the forum shared a rather melancholy disposition-- not surprising, considering the rueful tone of Larkin's poetry, where even the flashes of sublimity are only highlights against a general gloom. (Larkin famously said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.)

However, not everybody on the forum was conservative-- most seemed apolitical, and somewhat fatalistic, while others even leaned to the liberal side. My own conservatism was deepening every day. I had reached a kind of futile anti-industrialism similar to that of D.H. Lawrence (whose book Apocalypse I'd read on a visit to the North of England-- I have happy memories of reading it in the deserted lounge of a hotel called the King's Arms, in Richmond North Yorkshire, while drinking brandy and Cokes). Pretty much everything about modern society was shoddy and contemptible, I'd decided. All modern history was a chronicle of social and cultural decline.

All these years later, I've come to see this outlook as sterile, a dead end, even self-indulgent. This is why I become fatigued by right-wing Catholics who see nothing but weakness and compromise in Vatican II. Repudiation is easy, even when it is dressed up as the loftiest idealism and fidelity. Ultimately we must find something in the world as it is to affirm.

But I digress...

Goodness knows how many thousands of words I poured into the Philip Larkin Society forum. All of the regulars seemed to be somewhat abashed at their presence, since each of us would intermittently bid adieu to the rest...and yet we kept coming back.

Perhaps the most memorable contributor was a chap who went by the name of Cojones. He insisted that Larkin was the only poet worth bothering with. He even questioned whether the rest of us actually enjoyed poetry by other poets, as we claimed to. I know he sounds like a troll, from this description, but I don't think he was. I think he was absolutely sincere. At one point, when somebody offered "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" as an example of a wonderful line of poetry, he claimed to find no merit whatsoever in it!

He'd discovered Larkin as a teenager, by walking into a room when some of his poetry was being broadcast on the radio. He was a gloomy chap. At one point, he commented that he never expected to have another relationship. But this was rather part for the course. We were all gloomy.

He did make one very profound observation, however, once which has always stuck with me. It was during a discussion of W.B. Yeats, whose poetic pre-eminence I was forever advancing. He said that he didn't like Irish writers, because they were always trying to hard to be Irish, or trying too hard not to be Irish. I think this is one of the most penetrating critiques on Irish literature I've ever heard (although I've come to believe that there's nothing wrong with "trying to be Irish", any more than there is with "trying to be human", or "trying to be Christian". I try very hard to be Irish, and one day I hope to succeed).

The forum could be surprisingly rough. I was mocked when I admitted to a taste for the verse of Edgar Allen Poe, and also when I wondered if Shakespeare's sonnets were not overrated. (I haven't changed my mind on either of these subjects.) On another occasion, I had the temerity to plug an early blog of mine, on which I'd posted some of my poetry. Some time later, one of the regulars took a savage swing at my efforts. I found this devastating at the time.

(However, I was no angel myself, and perhaps this was revenge for the time I responded to a long, thoughtful post he had written with a one-word profanity ("B*****ks!"). I thought I was being funny, and that the joke would be obvious-- after all, it was the kind of thing Philip Larkin might write in his infamously scurrilous correspondence with Kingsley Amis. But he didn't see the funny side of it. Yes, I was a rather less refined character back in those days...I had not yet discovered G.K. Chesterton.)

Oh, the hours I spent working out my thoughts on that forum! I can still see its green type  glowing against a white background, with the inky image of a frog at the top. (The Society’s emblem is not, as one might suppose, a toad, but a drawing of the small jade frog which Larkin kept as an ornament on his desk...).

Eventually, the forum was taken down while the website was being redesigned. I think this was against the background of some controversy, something to do with changes of personnel in the Society itself-- I heard murmurs. When it eventually returned, months or years later, it included a new forum-- but this one, sadly, was stillborn. At intervals of months, I would think to look in on it. Only one of the regulars posted there, and that was seldom indeed, as nobody responded to his posts. The party, such as it was, was over. Now even that forum has been taken down.

I often wonder what has happened to all the regulars. I see one, who posted using his real name (as did I), quite active on the internet. I sent a Facebook friend request to someone who I thought might have been one of the others, but it was not accepted. I know one regular died in the twilight days of the forum-- in fact, close to his own end he admitted (in poignantly poorly typed words) that it was one of the few pleasures left to him.

I hope the rest are still alive, and doing well. I remember one of them, after a rather bruising response to one of my posts, told me that it was not delivered without affection. I look back on them all with affection, too. "What will survive of us is love."

(I contributed a commentary on Larkin's early poem "The School in August" to the Society website, for their regular "Poem of the Month" feature, in January 2006. It's still there, and I'm still quite proud of it.)


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  2. As somebody who,through no decision of my own, rarely writes an actual letter or makes a phone call without some tangible reason for the call and then for less than 30 seconds usually, your reflection on things like forums as a way of communication struck a chord. Far from wanting change for the sake of being digital,I'm as undigital as you'll get. It never really occurs to me that,becoming a 'regular',others will actually focus on your existence!

    1. Well, I hate the telephone and my answerphone message actually asks people to email or text me rather than phone me! Thirty seconds is about as long as I want to stay on that blasted invention....

      And being undigital is good! I'm not sure all those hours I spent on the forum were particularly well-spent, but I wanted to record them anyway...

  3. A shopping centre was playing Phillip Oakley the other day which led me to revisit the (largely forgotten) Electric Dreams movie and soundtrack (one of the few teen movies so-called that I actually saw when young),it was worth remembering that it was actually about a love triangle between a man,a woman and a computer with intelligence, that fought for the same lady,who thought she liked the fellow because she thought he played classial music which the computer was actually generating. Culture Club's contribution was a number called Love Is Love- is this the earliest reference to the expression?,if so do people using the phrase know the original storyline and the full extent of what it implied? Computers in their lovelife?

    1. That's a funny historical irony all right. But if a computer and a human really love each other.....