We don’t generally think of Philip Larkin as a sports journalist. A recent memoir, That Will Be England Gone by Michael Henderson, about “cricket’s last summer” before the advent of new formats destroyed traditional county play, may have taken its title from a poem by Larkin, but of course the line isn’t originally about cricket; it is about urbanization. “And it will be England gone”, writes Larkin in “Going, Going”: “The shadows, the meadows, the lanes, / The guildhalls, the carved choirs.” It’s the Larkin who reverently removes his “bike clips” when he enters a church. The aesthetic rather than the warm.
And yet sport, and the idea of competition, are never far from the surface of his writing. In A Girl in Winter (1947), her second novel, much of the romance, such as it is, takes place on the tennis court. Katherine, a French exchange student, visits Jane and Robin at their country house. There is a court and they play every day. Robin is a bit of a closed book, which makes Katherine want to face her on the net, “because she knew that by playing a game a person can show a lot of their character. Oppose her , even on the tennis court, would force into action the personality he hid so well.
The match that follows is described in impressive technical detail. Jane loses the first matches – Robin is stronger than her. But she is more subtle and begins to spot the pattern of her game:
The first thing she noticed was that he invariably returned his serve on his backhand, even after she had demonstrated that he was not weak… Well, his game was limited. He never chopped or made pirate excursions on the net. His style was fast, neat, open and unchanging. Once she understood that, it was easy to take the initiative…
She ends up winning seven-five.
In a 1979 interview with The Observer, Larkin said: “There comes a time in your life when you realize there’s a limit to what you can get from others and there’s a limit to what your own personality is in itself… This is really the story of a girl in winter. But you can also see this idea in many poems. In “Mr. Bleaney”, for example, the narrator of the poem settles in a flat and thinks of the former tenant of his room, probably deceased. He wonders if, at Bleaney’s age, “having nothing left to show/only one rented box” made him feel “he didn’t deserve better”. This is the “fear” we all face as we approach this point in our lives: “that the way we live measures our own nature”.
Larkin himself has often linked this fear to the competitive anxieties associated with playing sports. In another interview, at the Revue de Paris in 1982, he evoked the pleasure of writing for the pleasure of writing. “Assuming nobody plays tennis because they won’t make it to Wimbledon?” He asked. It seems that tennis was one of his touchstones. A few months before his death, when Larkin was stricken with esophageal cancer, his friend and biographer Andrew Motion came to visit him at the nursing home. They watched Wimbledon together. Boris Becker was playing. “He looks like a young Auden,” Larkin said “approvingly.”