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Friday, 12 October 2012

Philip Larkin: Mr Bleaney


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Clouds: photo by Stephen Iliffe, 2 June 2011


'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,

Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags --

'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown

The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits -- what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways --

Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985): Mr Bleaney, May 1955, from The Whitsun Weddings, 1964




Going (Hindringham, Norfolk): photo by Cameron Self, 1 September 2012

10 comments:

TC said...

On 22 February 1967 Larkin wrote to Judy Egerton:

"Sometimes I think I shall never leave Hull -- I am growing defeatist: I spurn offers to fly me to Montreal or Rome, wonderful girls called Shirley & Beverley write asking what Mr Bleaney is about & I instruct Betty [Mackereth, his long-time secretary] to reply 'Mr Larkin regrets...' I am not even turning into a regional poet, with his clay pipe and acknowledged corner in the snug of the Cat and Fuddle. Just an anonymous figure, whom people will dimly remember seeing when the evening paper says 'Hull Man Dies'..."

Though Larkin disavows the role of "regional poet", this poem is grounded specifically in the English Midlands. (Larkin grew up in Coventry). The term "the Bodies" serves a double purpose -- introducing the eerie, chill feeling of morbidity which sets the poem's tone, and locating the poem in place and time. "The Bodies" was a local colloquial term for the auto-body manufacturing plants of the Midlands, which were still thriving at the time the poem was writ (1955). The reference to Stoke (where Mr Bleaney's sister resides) confirms this geographical location. "The jabbering set he egged her [i.e. the landlady] on to buy" refers to a crystal radio set, a popular (and generally affordable) device in the austere economic circumstance of post-war Britain. Mr Bleaney's summer visits to "the Frinton folk" also identifies a class marker; Frinton is a seaside resort of modest scale, on the North Sea and not far from the Midlands. At the time of my residence in the neighborhood, Frinton was a common venue for low-overhead holidaying. And "the four-aways" refers to the weekly football betting pools -- again, a common pastime, and familiar local parlance in this part of the world.

So in fact the poem makes a "regional poet" of Larkin after all.

And indeed it's surprising how well this poem does in the Humberside accents of the Hull band Man-made Noise:

Mr Bleaney performed by Man-made Noise.

If we were to be having a contest feature at this blog, I would ask, what is it that is going on there on the BBC All Night North in-studio monitor, partially visible over the shoulder of Man-made Noise vocalist Terence James Dean?

But no one would know or care.

So a bit of historical revelation is now at hand.

What the musicians are missing, as they sing and play, is one of the more memorable football matches of recent decades:

Ghana v Uruguay, World Cup Quarter Final, 2 July 2010.

(That free-kick tucked in at the top corner is the work of Diego Forlán, the dashing Uruguay striker.)

Finally, the choice of surname for the poem's sad central figure has a bleak association by its very sound. In the early novel Jill, writ while Larkin was still an Oxford undergraduate, there is a Mr Bleaney who is identified as a grammar school classmate of the hero, John Kemp. In some real sense "Mr Bleaney", here, is an alter-ego or "double" of the poet, who seems to be signalling that certain fates are inescapable.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Thanks for the poem and the enlightening background information on it--if I remember correctly, this was one of the poems we discussed in UW grad writing school (the Head was an ardent admirer of Larkin's verse).

TC said...

Vassilis,

I could go to school all over again with this poem.

The way the local knowledge is built into the first five stanzas, bringing reality and credibility, and setting up the remarkable folding and delaying of the syntax over the final two stanzas, with that conditional "But if... I don't know" construction, makes a little manual of the art of verse.

For me this remains a very moving poem, getting better with the years.

(BTW it brings back some odd personal memories as well... being stranded in the forlorn row-house streets of Stoke, while hitch-hiking, one day long ago.)

Susan Kay Anderson said...

My bones will show
where I've been walking
over terrain weak new
rainbow black
varied sand
will join the bits of teeth
found with the others.

I've never been to England
think in certain aspects
of its war torn language.
I'd like to look at
some of their timber.

Please tell me to go home
I've been at school so long
it is Friday always. Nothing
lasts intact at Nonpareil.
To be a poet of that region
you'd have to be a salmon
or a ghost of one
smelling for the ghost of home
where host and hostess
wait with berries Himalayan.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

He had a chance
chances
to marry
but chose the clouds
as his mate,
instead.

We are left with clouds
as inheritance.
Don't be disappointed
in the will.
I see he left you some, too
a sizable chunk.
People will talk.

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Tom,

Thanks for those clouds and this poem.
"how we live measures our own nature"
Larkin "Like to the lark at break of day"

10.12

grey whiteness of clouds above shadowed
plane of ridge, green of leaf on branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

seemed “absorbed in matter”
itself, object pushed

more in the earlier picture,
flat light, projected

grey white clouds reflected in channel,
shadowed green pine on tip of sandspit

Susan Kay Anderson said...

"sauce", "Frinton", "Stoke" mysteriously concise and plain? sounding, definite. Sparse. Set in its ways. It is dried out here. If this were the desert, I'd say Shaman, but no, not here, too private, packed away. What is opened is the possiblity that things are enough as they are.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Mostly sky
a thin line of field, trees
where the wild plums grew
that they picked that summer.
Nothing would be better.
Picking anything else
would not be the same.

Wooden Boy said...

"Tussocky, littered", a perfect coupling of words.

"Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook/ Behind the door, no room for books or bags".

A disenchanted poetry, a lyrical inventory

Larkin writes as a Midlander, a person without the steady public identity of a Yorkshireman or a Cockney. We don't ever quite figure distinctly.

His language never fixes him. He's always inbetween; nobody's boy.

I feel as if this poem is in my bloodstream.

TC said...

It does work its way into one. And stays.

Interesting about the mix of vernacular strains.

A "middle voice" for the in-betweens, concocted from adjacent extremes?

A word that comes forward with particularized affect in the Hull lads' Yorkshire-accented performance of the lyric is "fusty".

And the coming down hard on "Stoke", that pronounced bite. A driving-home of the nail?

(How few poems writ these days have a lyric structure that would make them singable I wonder?)