Philip Larkin’s Deep and Beautiful Poetry Sent Me Back to Class | Rachel Cooke

IIt must be possible to believe that a curriculum should not be preserved for eternity as an asp – that some measure of change can only be a good thing – and yet to cry upon hearing the news that the OCR, one of the three major review boards, removed the work of Thomas Hardy, John Keats, Philip Larkin, and Wilfred Owen from its curriculum.

Such mourning seems natural to me, stemming as much from what we love as from where we stand in the culture wars. If young people don’t have their favorite verses yet, we walk around with certain lines etched forever in our hearts, the only truly beautiful remnants we can have of our old school days.

Larkin has always been my man and I hate the thought of others not finding him like me. At 16, I was a school disaster. The teachers’ strikes had made my job easier and very quickly I was almost a full-time absentee, a state of affairs that lasted more than a year. Only when I opened Pentecost weddings did a spark of interest finally ignite deep within the lazy, earthy refusenik I had become. Larkin’s poems – this is hardly new – are extraordinarily beautiful, extremely deep and, above all, incredibly easy to read. He was, I always felt, my unlikely saviour, his existential desperation somehow serving to pull me off my Nescafé and Neighbors stupor; his famous and ineffably charming shower of arrows refreshing parts of adolescent me that no other poet could reach.

lost treasures

“Breathtaking Collection”: Yazidi Girls in Kurdistan in 1940s Iraq. Photography: published under a Creative Commons CCBYNC license

At the Courtauld gallery to see his Edvard Munch exhibition, I wandered into a side room and found a mind-blowing collection of photographs from Iraqi Kurdistan. Taken in the 1940s by Anthony Kersting (1916-2008), they depict many buildings since destroyed by IS, as well as the people – the Yazidis, in particular – for whom they were sacred. What a treasure! And yet, what melancholy. I gazed for a long time at the vanished Nebi Yunis Mosque near the site of ancient Nineveh, dynamited in 2014. Having replaced an Assyrian church, it was reputed to be not only the burial place of Jonah, but also of the whale that swallowed, of which a large tooth remained as evidence. The Courtauld holds 42,000 prints of Kersting, images it is digitizing thanks to an army of volunteers who have so far donated 32,000 hours of free time to its members.

Looking for Scargill

Arthur Scargill walks along a police line during the Orgreave strike in 1984.
Arthur Scargill walks along a police line during the Orgreave strike in 1984. Photograph: Don McPhee/The Guardian

Everyone I know watches the James Graham series sherwood, a drama set in a Nottinghamshire village still scarred by the divisions of the miners’ strike. But while we’re gripped by its plot, we’re also spooked by its timing. Last week it was almost as if Graham had conjured a ghost, with episode four airing the same day Arthur Scargill, the former head of the National Union of Miners, was seen joining a picket line in support for the railway strike.

Thanks to my Sheffield roots – in the early 1980s the NUM built a huge HQ in the city, its central section designed to look like a tile; it was locally known as King Arthur’s Castle – I will never cease to be fascinated by Scargill, nor write to him asking for an interview (he never replies). After he reappeared, I lost an age on the oddly quaint NUM website, where I read, with my mouth wide open, Low Hall in Scalby, near Whitby: a 31-bedroom house that comes with a library and a crown green bowling alley and which is otherwise known as the Yorkshire Area Miners Holiday Home.

Rachel Cooke is an Observer reporter

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