On Saturday August 13 1955, Philip Larkin, the poet and head librarian at the University of Hull, boarded a train at the city’s Paragon station. The slow train was bound for London and this journey inspired one of the nation’s best-loved poems: “The Whitsun Weddings”.
In the poem, Larkin sets out from Hull on a “sunlit Saturday” and gradually realises that the train is being boarded at each station by newly wed couples, all brought together briefly on this “frail travelling coincidence” of a railway journey. With a sceptical but generous spirit, Larkin captures the fragility of the human search for love, happiness and community. “The Whitsun Weddings” had a long gestation, being first broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme in April 1959 and later appearing in Larkin’s 1964 collection of the same name.
Larkin’s fateful journey, it should be noted, did not actually take place at Whitsun. In his recent book, Family Britain, the historian David Kynaston pins down this three-month discrepancy, a forgivable piece of poetic licence. Larkin noted when he finished the poem in 1959 that he took the relevant trip in August 1955, and his itinerary that month means that it must have been on the 13th. Whit Saturday in 1955, meanwhile, fell on the day before a planned national rail strike, and the so-called “Hermit of Hull” would never have boarded a long-distance train without a definite means of getting home.
Larkin did not find his return journey quite so inspiring. “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train,” he wrote to the friends he had visited in London, “next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolate baby”. While Larkin’s misanthropy and casual racism caused a temporary dip in his reputation after his death, his status as one of the great 20th-century British poets now seems assured.
Hull is currently hosting a five-month festival marking the 25th anniversary of his death, culminating in December with the unveiling of a bronze statue of Larkin by the sculptor Martin Jennings at Paragon station. It will complement another Jennings sculpture, of Larkin’s friend John Betjeman, at London’s St Pancras station, just across the road from King’s Cross, Larkin’s destination in August 1955.