I write this column in Hull, where yesterday I spoke at Bad Habits of Expectancy, a conference at the university to mark the centenary of the birth of Philip Larkin. It’s all very exciting and strange. I have a dorm room, and this morning I ate breakfast – buttered toast, for I’m up north – alongside a handful of cloudy-eyed college students in a place called the Pantry. Scarf trailing, I walk around campus, rather dark in winter, and remember what it was like to be young. Where have all the years gone? Larkin, of course, is the perfect soundtrack for this kind of melancholy.
I’ve talked about Larkin and the cancel culture: Looking back, he was a canary in the coal mine, a sign of things to come. Others talked about Larkin and Auden, Larkin and National Service (which he didn’t), and Larkin and childhood (which notoriously bored him); Professor Esther Johnson of Sheffield Hallam University and her colleague Vicky Foster gave a presentation on the magnificent Hull Co-op of the 1960s, a building which, while not inspiring, is reminiscent hereLarkin’s beautiful poem about the city (Cheap suits, red kitchen utensils, pointy shoes, popsicles / Electric blenders, toasters, washers, dryers).
Last night we ate at Larkin’s Bar, marked by a metallic toad, but whose menu consists of pasta and burgers rather than canned sardines and tangerines.
The lecture will conclude with a tour of Larkin’s office within the Brynmor Jones Library. Apparently, I should brace myself for the sight of a pair of the poet’s glasses on his (surprisingly large) desk.
The art of daring
I expected the office tour to be the highlight – what to call it? – academic extravagance of the lyric and the everyday. But for me the highlight was the drinks at the University of Hull Art Gallery before dinner. What place. Given the moribund state of our glorious nation, it’s painfully easy to overlook all the good things that are still available to us, and here’s one. To think I hadn’t even heard of it until now.
In 1963, with the help of an annual endowment of just £300, the university began building a collection, from scratch, of British art made between 1890 and 1940. To do such a thing must have seemed crazy to At the time, even if it was the curator, he only had to tackle “what is not fashionable and cheap”. But the audacity paid off. The collection is now of national significance and includes over 400 works by artists such as Ben Nicholson, Nina Hamnett, Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer and Keith Vaughan. Free entry and open to all. My favorite : Madrid crowd (1931), a documentary painting from a newsreel photograph of Sylvia Gosse, daughter of the great Edmund Gosse and famous pupil of Sickert.
Perfumes of an end
In London, two of my most beloved shops are closing: I Camisa & Son, the legendary Italian grocery store in Soho, and Fenwick on Bond Street. Camisa whom I cherish for fresh pasta and fantastic sandwiches, while Fenwick always screamed glamorous, albeit kinda sensitive, at me. My grandmother from Sunderland, the neatest woman I’ve ever known, spoke pompously of going “through Newcastle” where Fenwick started her life and where she loved to shop. When I moved to London at 22 I naturally gravitated towards her even though I had no money to spend. I’ll miss stroking the camel coats and trying on the whimsical hats; the spurts of perfume that kissed me a tender goodbye on leaving.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist
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