Wednesday, March 22, 2017

St John's Wood, London

‘I try the door of where I used to live’

For me, that’s one of the most haunting lines in ‘Dockery and Son’, a poem by Philip Larkin, in which the poet describes how he returns to the university where he studied* and talks to one of the tutors about a near-contemporary he hardly remembers. The poem is famous for being about Larkin’s repudiation of parenthood: the barely-remembered Dockery has a son; Larkin has no children, and prefers it that way. But it’s also about going back to a place that once meant a lot to you and is now somehow remote.

In the middle of these half-memories comes this moment: ‘I try the door of where I used to live’. It turns out to be locked, this door, but the line brings one up short: what sort of nerve has Larkin got, trying people’s doors? Well, one has to remember that this is an Oxford college he’s visiting, and such places sometimes have semi-public doors that let one into buildings, beyond which are the more private doors that lead to students’ rooms. It would be quite in order to try such an outer door.†

But perhaps the jolt that the line gives me is about more than this. It’s also, I think, about the awkwardness of going back to a once familiar place, the discomfort I at least feel when that sense of familiarity is combined with a feeling of distance. In St John’s Wood the other day, walking along a street where I lived briefly over 30 years ago (or more accurately, where I was taking advantage of a friend’s hospitality and sleeping on his floor while I found somewhere permanent), I felt a similar remoteness. It was partly the time gap, partly that this bit of London is even more the preserve of the very rich than when I lived there. Even then, the person living opposite drove a Ferrari. You’d not be walking around trying doors here. These premises are probably alarmed, and so would other passers-by be, if they saw you taking a chance with a door knob.

And in any case I couldn’t try my old door because the entire house was cordoned off: the builders were in, long-term. Instead I contented myself with looking at some of the Regency ironwork a few doors along. The Greek key pattern on the upright (1830s probably, or thereabouts) particularly appealed to me. And the memory of those high windows, that let in so much light, and up beyond them ‘the deep blue air, that shows nothing , and is nowhere, and is endless’.§

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*For Larkin, this was St John’s College, Oxford.

†The older rooms in my own college also had individual outer doors, which you closed if you didn’t want to be disturbed. It would have been forgivable, just, to try such a door, but impolite then to try the inner one. Another explanation of Larkin’s apparent chutzpah is that his visit is in the vacation and the room is likely to be unoccupied.

§Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’. The poem ‘Dockery and Son’ first appeared in The Whitsun Weddings; ‘High Windows’ was published in the volume also called High Windows.


Peter Ashley said...

This is brilliant.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you very much.

Hels said...

I took all the grandchildren back to the house I lived in during the 1950s and the primary school I attended. It was an outer suburb of Melbourne then, so my ex-serviceman father moved there only because he got a very favourable bank loan.

Nothing was the same. The market gardens had been pulled down and built on, the quarter acre blocks no longer had tiny 2-bedroom cottages on huge lawns and a shopping mall has appeared with every facility known to man-kind. The red-brick Victorian primary school has doubled in size, but with modern facilities.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

"Never go back" seems a suitable motto. A local assured me that the Victorian church I attended in the 1950s as a child was partly ruined because "It was bombed in the war." Even my own history was taken off me! And nobody still alive to assure me that my memory was an accurate one! But I did remember that my primary school had a saddleback tower. I could see it from the motorway entering Birmingham via Spaghetti Junction. I wonder if that first ignited an interest in architecture?