Philip Larkin: Children of the Whitsun Weddings

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BBC Radio 3, 24 May 2009
This documentary, inspired by Philip Larkin's collection of poems, saw two modern poets - Paul Farley and Kate Clanchy - retracing the steps followed by Larkin himself. They visited Oxford, Didcot, Birmingham, Sheffield, Hull and ended their quest by travelling back to London by train, just as the young married couples might have done in the mid-1950s, following their Whitsun weddings.
This imaginative programme told us a lot about Larkin himself: born to a working-class family who ascended the social scale, he enjoyed numerous educational advantages - an Oxford education and a life of comfortable anonymity as librarian at the University of Hull. Nonetheless he considered himself an outsider - a northerner who could not adjust to life at Oxford, and a loner neither emotionally nor physically suited to have children. Many of his poems focus on alienation; the inability of people to relate to one another, despite their surface sociability.
Larkin never fitted in; having been brought up in the suburbs of Birmingham - neither in the country nor the city - he spent his life in comparative seclusion. Even the house where he lived now appears anonymous: the two poets eventually discovered a blue plaque on the outside, but it was buried among mountains of foliage.
Nonetheless Children of the Whitsun Weddings celebrated Larkin's virtues as a poet; his patriotism and his love of the people he wrote about. They might be anonymous, living only for special occasions like a Whitsun wedding, which released them (however briefly) from their humdrum existences, but they nonetheless deserved to be treated with respect. Larkin might have been a melancholic, but he was also magnanimous.
Imaginatively narrated, with contributions from Larkin scholars Tom Paulin and James Booth, combined with readings from The Whitsun Weddings (some by Larkin himself), Children of the Whitsun Weddings confirmed Larkin's reputation as someone who, although fixed in his opinions (even to the extent of being racist, as some of his letters reveal), nonetheless celebrated the kind of community values that perhaps no longer exist in contemporary Britain.