Jonathan Tulloch’s remarkable Larkinland is a novel which expertly and minutely captures the essence of Philip Larkin and his poetry. Tulloch deftly builds Larkin’s poems into a sustained landscape, fills it with Larkin’s characters and just for good measure adds a version of Larkin himself – meet Arthur Merryweather: librarian, poet and would-be great romantic.
In the extract below, having newly (and rather unhappily) moved to a new town, Merryweather embarks on his first journey to his new place of employment: the university library…
This extract begins on page 49 of Larkinland.
Hiding behind his (local) morning newspaper on the trolley, Merryweather felt as though he were going not to a library but a hospital for the prognosis of some lump. The Monday morning breakfast table repeated on him as much as the kippers: that barrage of sauce bottles, chewing jaws and bad breath.
Contrary to expectations, a pleasant surprise awaited him at the university. Instead of the utilitarian, redbrick barrack rising from a raw building site his successful novelist friend had led him to expect, he found half hidden in lawns and willows, a country house brocaded with ivy. A post box was quickly located, and the weekend’s letters dispatched.At the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor’s office he had to wait for half an hour. ‘What does he want?’ he heard the administrator ask his secretary.
‘Something about the library, sir.’
‘Library? What does he want with the library?’
‘You appointed him as the new head librarian, Sir.’
Throughout their brief cup of tea, the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor continually rearranged pens on his desk as though working out some enigmatic puzzle. His curly beard and fringe gave him the look of a merino sheep. This ovine resemblance reminded the librarian that the man on the other side of the desk had been the silent partner in the interviewing panel at the British library, though he clearly didn’t remember Merryweather. ‘Found digs yet, Merriman?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ His mother’s son, in the face of authority Merryweather demurred from making correction.
The Aide to the Vice-Chancellor paused in his pen arranging. ‘The town does have some good areas; I’ve always maintained that. How do you find arrangements on the river? Yes we are rather out on a limb. Where the train runs out, the land too, wot? And we’re just left with the mud and the sky. The natives, well you might like them or you might not; on the whole the students can sometimes be keen. Not a bit like that dreadful novel doing the rounds.’ Merryweather suppressed a grin. His friend, and chief correspondent, was the writer of the deliciously scandalous academic novel doing the rounds. ‘Well, no doubt you’ll be anxious to see your little fiefdom. Very good of you to come in today, Merriman. Above and beyond…’
Was everybody off their rocker here? The librarian puzzled as, interview over, he headed in the direction the Aide to the Vice-Chancellor’s secretary had pointed out.
Merryweather’s fiefdom was yet another surprise. Had his luck changed? Leaning out of some children’s story, a pair of manorial gateposts offered a secretive avenue of chestnut trees. The avenue graciously ushered the librarian to a brownstone building bearing the simple sign: Library. In summer, that dead wood adhering to the walls would be rambling roses; spring, when it arrived, promised bluebells. For now, a robin piped the melancholy carol of a T.S. Eliot April; all that was missing was a gardener’s fork for it to perch on and begin conducting the way to a secret garden.And there was the garden fork!
Not a city sound to be heard as the new head librarian mounted his library steps for the first time. Above the door, a sculpted stone figure in the art deco style reclined on lintel. The figure – reclining or hovering? – peered down at him. Was it an angel? Art deco, the final and least expected touch. The ghosts of Evelyn Waugh’s bright young things. Et in Arcadia Ego blah, blah, blah. That was one thing about librarianship, it might be sexless and bloody boring, but, like a convalescence from a good bout of measles, it gave one plenty of time to read.
The angel watched Merryweather push and pull the entrance door, shunt and shove, thrust and shoulder. All in vain, it was locked. No sign of anyone within. No lights. Nose pressed against the glass, all the new man could see was a darkling, marble vestibule. Skulking in the shadows like a Neanderthal peering from his cave, the bust of some beetle-browed philanthropist frowned at the disturber of his peace. Knocking unanswered, Merryweather got on his knees and called through the low letterbox.
‘Oi!’ A shout from the chestnuts. The librarian struggled to his feet. Was it directed at him? ‘Yes, you, you lanky sod. What’s your game?’
For a moment, he thought the person breaking from the undergrowth, all whirring arms and neck, was a policeman. Only when the official reached him did the librarian realise his mistake. ‘I’m trying to get in,’ Merryweather explained.
‘Oh you are, are you? Well you’re not going to.’ Not the sprightliest of men, the college porter was out of breath. ‘Can’t you see it’s closed?’ Merryweather’s trilby, tie, briefcase and British Warm seemed to mollify the custodian. ‘Thought you were some grubby student.’
‘Actually – I’m the new head librarian.’
Torn between suspicion and a professional sense of caste, the porter took off his hat and scratched his head.‘Didn’t they tell you? Nowt’s open today. No students. Nothing.’ Suspicion reared to the fore.‘ How do I know you’re who you say you are? No one told me. I didn’t even know the last one had gone.’
Feeling rather ludicrous, Merryweather opened his briefcase to bring out a copy of The Library, the journal of the Bibliographical Society. The porter flipped through the pages with a yawn. ‘No, I don’t suppose you’d read something like that unless you really were a librarian.’
The porter fell back on the eternal sigh of his breed, as well as the habitual mix of pronouns. ‘Better come with me, sir, and I’ll see if we can’t sort you out for yourself. I’m Harry. Harry Oxley.’
Harry led him back up the chestnut avenue and across a chain of secluded lawns to where a more municipal, Winifred Holtbyish building stood. A hushed maze of parquet floors contained the porter’s lodge. Merryweather was installed on an ancient chair beneath an enormous dovecote of pigeonholes. Smelling the lodge’s varied woods and listening to the porter on the phone, he felt gratitude for having missed both the war and national service. Easy to imagine a rifle range, wet feet, and the porter, a sergeant major, explaining how to strip a Bren gun for the hundredth time. Four separate phone calls had to be made, two of them trunk. At last the hugest bunch of keys Merryweather had ever seen was plucked from a hook. ‘If you’d like to come along with me, Mr M.’ Jingling like some Dickensian turnkey, the porter led him back through the parquet labyrinth, over the lawn, through the enchanted gates and down the chest- nut avenue to the library. ‘That wants taking down,’ Harry declared, looking up at the angel as he unlocked the door. ‘Or one of these fine days it’ll come down and crush a student flat.’
Passing through the philanthropist’s marble gaze, they entered the library proper. After the imposing entrance and almost grand vestibule, the first impression was frankly underwhelming. Something about the size of a real tennis court presented itself. Less fiefdom than corner shop. Well, not quite that bad. As Merryweather’s eyes grew accustomed to the half-light, he saw that the shelves were almost spectacularly tall. They towered into a shadowed silence bound by a lofty gallery. Above that, high windows. Following Harry, Merryweather found that the premises had a second, identical room, which gave access to a couple of smaller reading rooms. In total, the whole concern was on the scale of a thriving branch library. The high windows gave the vague feel of a mausoleum. Merryweather felt half at home. When Harry switched a flick, the gruelly light barely thickened. ‘Bloody bulb’s gone again,’ he said, voice amplified to a giant’s timbre by the cavernous emptiness. ‘Pardon my French.’
There was another surprise. Following his guide between tight, dark shelves, the new librarian stepped into a well of light. A dome rose high above him. It had been hidden from him by the tall stacks. A metal staircase wound steeply up the side of the dome. ‘Careful coming up here, Sir.’ The steps creaked as the pair mounted them, the echo rippling through the several deeps of the library.‘They all like this?’ the porter asked, stopping halfway up.
‘Beg pardon?’ asked Merryweather, not sure the stairs were exactly safe.
‘Are all libraries so loud?’
‘I’ve never really thought about it.’
‘They’re supposed to be quiet, but they’re not, not when nobody’s in them. It’s only when they’re full that they’re quiet. What do you make of that?’
‘Interesting,’ said the new head librarian only quarter lying.
The winding stair led to a smoked glass door marked Head Librarian in rather skittish swirls. The porter opened up. By some architectural sleight of hand, instead of the storeroom attic Merryweather had been expecting, the room was commodious to the point of extravagance. Decorous cornices, oil paintings, armchairs, and, wonderfully incongruous, a chaise longue. Two pairs of generous windows to boot. After the crypt-like library, the view – chestnut avenue, gateposts, a lawned middle distance bound by tree-lined road – opened up like the vista from a headland. ‘Its acoustic is the opposite of a theatre,’ Merryweather said, without turning from the window. ‘That’s what makes them so loud. Libraries. Paradoxically so, given all the signs for silence.’ His eyes narrowed as he continued to gaze at the view whose limit was described by a bicycle trolling through a tracery of leafless branches. ‘A theatre is designed for projection, a library, introspection. On stage, one seeks to be heard by hundreds, a library has a far greater ambition. It aims to reach…’ Merryweather broke off. He could see Harry making off under the chestnuts. ‘And so forth.’
Shoulders easing with this unexpected bonanza of solitude, Merryweather sat at his desk. Solid as a tug. Just as well, more than likely it would be required to haul him into the waters of middle-age. Perhaps beyond. It offered all the tools of the trade. Ink bottle, ink well, blotting paper, telephone, in and out trays, an ashtray (plain), pen holder (rather decorative), enough drawer space for concealing a dismembered corpse let alone a bottle of Glenlivet, paper too, sufficient thereof for the writing of a novel. Except his novel-writing days were over, that was a business best left to his successful friend. Merryweather suppressed a belch of regret, but it was that morning’s kippers not the brace of his own unsuccessful novels, which had found little favour with the reading public when published just after the war. With the nearly pleasurable air of being a ship’s captain finding himself alone not only on his bridge but on the whole vessel, Merryweather lit the fire from the ample basket of logs, and then his first Park Drive of the day. A relatively exciting though not entirely trustworthy feeling flickered with the flames as he sat on the chaise longue: he’d be able to write poetry here.
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