Philip Larkin : A Night with No Memory

23rd September 2017

 After a visit to Hull University’s exhibition Larkin: New Eyes Each Year  Tom’s book radar was honed to spot interesting and rare Larkin items and his recent scouting has unearthed some delightful rarities.



The first find was a copy of Oxford Poetry, 1942 – 1943. Like many of the 20th century’s most highly regarded poets Larkin’s first poems in a published book appear in Basil Blackwell’s Anthology Oxford Poetry, which annually gathers poems written by members of Oxford University.


“Notwithstanding present difficulties” the 1943 anthology was published in an edition of 500 copies. The booklet bound simply in dark blue card wrappers with a printed  label on the upper cover, includes three Larkin poems; A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb, Mythological Introduction and I dreamed of an outstretched arm of land. The mid war timing and the ephemeral nature of the publication mean that the booklet is now very rarely encountered, especially so in decent condition.


The second published book to contain poems by Larkin was entitled Poetry from Oxford in Wartime, published February 1945. Published by The Fortune Press and printed by J Locker Ltd. of Poole, no record was made of the number of copies printed, though the number is thought unlikely to exceed 500 copies. This book gathers poetry by Oxford University members written over the five year period, 1940 – 1945, acknowledging the fact that many of the authors were now serving in H.M. Forces. Larkin had failed the military medical examination due to his poor eyesight, so was able to complete his studies at Oxford without interruption. Ten of the poet’s poems appear in the anthology for the first time, including The bottle is drunk out by one, The moon is full tonight and Morning has spread again.



Later that year Larkin’s own first book of poetry was published, also by The Fortune Press. The press, under the ownership of R.A. Caton, also published the early works of Dylan Thomas and Kingsley Amis. Larkin was infuriated by the length of time it took to bring the book to fruition, like many of the Fortune poets he received no remuneration for the book. Many authors were just delighted to find a publisher prepared to put their words into print and by way of recompense Caton promoted his poets by listing their names on the dustjacket, mimicking the practice of respected poetry publisher Faber & Faber.

‘ The Fortune Press ‘ , Philip Larkin complained in 1945, ‘ is only a yelping-ground for incompetents who can’t get a hearing elsewhere.’


 Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis and Hilary Amis

While many of the fortune poets have disappeared into obscurity, Caton did publish the works of some literary greats, including the likes of Cecil Day Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, Larkin and Amis.

Larkin’s The North Ship, eventually went on sale in June 1945, priced at 6s. The size of the print run was again unrecorded, but believed to have been around 500 copies, many of which failed to sell and their dustjackets

were mistakenly destroyed.




Amongst the Larkin books tracked down by Tom is an exceptional association copy of Larkin’s The North Ship, a contemporary gift to his close friend, Nick Russel.  Inscribed, “To Nick with all good wishes Philip Larkin, 1945.”


Russel was a fellow member of the Oxford set known as ‘The Seven’. They met as undergraduates at St John’s College when Larkin “approached Nick to recruit him to a new English Society. They very quickly discovered a shared love of jazz - especially as Nick had a gramophone and Larkin didn’t”. The Seven, comprising Larkin, Russel, Kingsley Amis, Norman Iles, Philip Brown, David Williams and Hilary Morris, according to biographer Andrew Motion “anticipated the principles which were more coherently described by The Movement in the 1950s”. Later, in a letter to Kingsley Amis, Larkin wrote "I should like to get back to the halcyon days of the suppers in Nick's rooms."


These and other works by Larkin are currently on display in our shop in Henley and the Larkin exhibition continues in Hull until 1st October. 



This biographic exhibition at the University of Hull, where Larkin spent three decades as Librarian, lifts the lid on the life of one of Hull’s most influential creatives. Featuring his love of music, unseen letters, photography and personal possessions, Larkin: New Eyes Each Year explores connections between Larkin’s life and work in Hull and the writing that led to him being described as Britain’s best loved poet.

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