Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Whitsun Weddings

I did this piece about Philip Larkin for the FT last week:

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.


  1. great stuff, I love a bit of Larkin, me.

    Joe - here's a question that maybe you might know the answer to (and which has been bugging me for years) In the Whitsun Weddings poem are these lines:

    "We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
    In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
    All posed irresolutely, watching us go"

    In your opinion, which 'pomaded'do you think he means - pomade in their hair (which I think), or drunk on pomade (which my english teacher thought, and which ended in me being sent out of the classroom for questioning the teacher)

  2. Surely it must mean 'with pomade in their hair'. The word 'pomade' for some kind of cider or apple drink is quite unusual, and I'd have thought this would be an odd tipple for a 1950s wedding reception. Whereas pomade in the hair has a 1950s feel (although, it's true, pomade has a very strong association with men's hairdressing).

  3. but philip, pomade the drink has a 50's feel too, (an early precursor to babycham..) and as you say, he's talking about girls, and I, as you do, associate pomade with men's hair rather than women's...

    looks like this question may haunt me forever :(

  4. Yes, well, maybe they would drink a kind of proto-Babycham, at that. Babycham itself had been launched by 1955, but it would be like Larkin to choose to refer to the more old-fashioned sparkling drink. The OED only gives the 'hair gelled' meaning for pomaded (not that the dictionary's omission proves much). But we're barking up the wrong (apple and pear) tree here - this is poetry: it can mean more than one thing at the same time.

  5. Yes, I always assumed it meant pomaded hair. In any case I think we can all agree you shouldn't have been sent out of the room by your teacher ...