IN JULY 1953 Philip Larkin stayed at the Royal Hotel on Weymouth seafront. He came on holiday with his mother Eva and was often mistaken for her brother or husband. He didn’t seem to mind this. He enjoyed holidays, despite claiming not to, and he liked Weymouth. This is how he described the resort to his lover Monica Jones, in a letter newly published in Letters to Monica (Faber, £22.50):
“There’s a great deal here that wd delight you: the statue of George III, glaring heavily along the front, is coloured; and everywhere in the town one has only to lift one’s gaze from the garish fronts of Saxone, Melias & so on to see the pretty round shallow bow windows & the colour-washed plaster. The harbour & old town is delicious.”
Ever since it was announced back in 2001 that a huge cache of Larkin’s letters, postcards, and telegrams to Monica Jones had been found, I’ve been waiting for the chance to read some of them in book form, and now here they are.
Do they disappoint? No. There’s something fascinating or funny on every page.
After Larkin’s return from Weymouth to Belfast, he wrote again to Monica about how he and his mother had walked to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Mellstock’.
“Hardy played a part in my parents’ courtship, & it astonishes me to hear her repeat snatches of his poems she learnt simply to please my father – We kissed at the barrier, for instance (as apparently they always did). Of course my father was grabbing the books as they came from the press, in the nineteen-hundreds.
“O frigid inarticulate man!”
Hardy is discussed again and again. In 1955, now in Hull, Larkin meets a “Botany prof. … called Good” – described as “not very bright”. The notes don’t say, but I’m sure this must be Ronald Good, who published a book on Dorset flora, now revered for its thoroughness by modern environmentalists. Anyway, Larkin is not put off by his dimness because it turns out that Good was born and brought up in Dorchester and “HE OFTEN SAW HARDY WALKING ABOUT”. And Good told Larkin a “striking” story about Dorchester:
“…after Dunkirk, Dorchester was full of soldiers, lying about exhausted all about the grass verges of the streets, sleeping it off. During these two days, a meeting was held at the Hardy statue to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth (2 June 1840) – with the soldiers lying around snoring. He saw it as ‘This England’ – NS & N [New Statesman & Nation, as it then was] – but I see it as pure Hardy.
“How he’d have felt it!”
Letters to Monica is not officially published until October 20 but you can buy it now for nearly half-price on Amazon and I can’t recommend more strongly that you do.