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Jonathan Tulloch
Publication Date: 
Thursday, July 27, 2017
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‘Tulloch’s new novel is full of wit, smart observation and, yes, Philip Larkin.’ – The TLS

‘A really clever look both at Larkin, at Hull, at the 1950s’ – Michael Arditti on BBC Radio 4

‘Jonathan Tulloch gets the claustrophobia, and grey crippling littleness, in the physicalities of 1950s Britain and the grouchy, misanthropic mindset, with exactness and relish.’ – Ruth Padel

‘A metafictional tale set in the world of Philip Larkin’s poems, which takes its lead from that masterpiece of provincial unease “Mr Bleaney”’ – The Guardian

‘Witty, beautifully written and surprisingly suspenseful, this deserves a wide readership.’ – Amanda Craig

‘Larkinland is a brave and ingenious rendering of the eponymous poet's first days in Hull’ – The Yorkshire Times



Step into Larkinland. Home of bicycle clips, trains, trolley buses, despair in rented rooms, and of course, the 'almost love affair’.  Jonathan Tulloch deftly builds Philip Larkin's poems into a sustained landscape, fills it with Larkin's characters and just for good measure adds a version of Larkin himself – meet Arthur Merryweather: librarian, poet and would be great romantic.

Arriving in 1950s Hull, Arthur Merryweather finds himself lodging with the landlady from hell, and falling in love with fellow librarian Niamh O'Leary. But just as their love threatens to bloom, the mystery of Mr Bleaney, the enigmatic insurance salesman who rented his room before him, threatens to pull the poet into disaster and cast him into the criminal hinterland of 'fish town', that sublimely banal Larkinland 'beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line, like a brick seal with a woodbine in its gob'.

Hilarious, hugely enjoyable and deeply moving, Larkinland is the most compelling love story, mystery and biographical novel you are likely to read.

A pitch-perfect realisation of Larkin's poetic world, the author also cooks up his own set of moving misadventures, which reveal the loneliness, commonplaces, fears, lusts and hope we all must face. Drawing on meetings with the women in Larkin's life, Larkinland casts startlingly fresh light on one of Hull’s greatest ever poets.



Review by Steve Whitaker, The Yorkshire Times

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Cumbrian novelist Jonathan Tulloch's Larkinland is a brave and ingenious rendering of the eponymous poet's first days in Hull, in the thin disguise of Arthur Merryweather, sometime chief librarian of the re-invented city's university library , and resident of a shabby guest house.

Using Larkin's bleak poem 'Mr Bleaney' as the starting point for an expansive plot development, and the austere figure of Bleaney as the mysterious former occupant of a grubby room now occupied by Merryweather, Tulloch unfolds an observationally-complex comic thriller which takes the reader on a tour of the underbelly of nineteen fifties England.

Arriving in the parody of 'Haddock Town' to take up his new post, Merryweather moves into landlady Miss Glendenning's boarding house, before embarking upon a series of misadventures revolving around the disappearance of the austere Bleaney, his unlikely connection to a group of local gangland hoodlums, the arrest of Merryweather as mistaken for Bleaney to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, and a severally-foiled attempt at an affair with Niamh O'Leary, his assistant.

The authenticity of Merryweather's journey is conditional upon extensive research into both Larkin's autobiographical world, and the landscape and social mores of the period in which the novel is conceived. And the result is hit and miss. Striving too assiduously to realise the threadbare, fifteen-watt post-war austerities of rationing, and pinched, hypocritical provincialism, Tulloch turns a would-be mystery story into a theatre of caricatures whose statuses or occupations determine demeanour and dialogue.

There is some truth in Tulloch's exposition: the facsimile of Hull, the thriving, pervasively-stinking fish docks, the thin sparseness of Merryweather's 'digs', the clouds of cigarette smoke, the crammed double-deckers, the 'travellers', the proscriptive early-closing and the omnipresent hairnets, are all pieces of a lifelike jigsaw assembled from Larkin's poetry, social histories of the fifties, and, stretching the chronology slightly, the Terry Street of Douglas Dunn.

But the problem here lies in a paradox. Whilst the making of Merryweather in the mould of extant knowledge of Larkin's life and work yields a convincing three-dimensional pastiche of the poet, we are simultaneously viewing a version of the fifties refracted through the same lens(es).

And if we are in any doubt as to provenance of local colour, we have the architectonics of Larkin's own world of words to bolster recognition through explanation.

Tulloch is keen to extract every reference out of the poetry to render as a knowing novelistic signifier. This works well when geographical identifiers become central to plot development: the Royal Station Hotel of Larkin's poem is reinvented, in the fictionalised Hull, as a place of meetings and conventions, a venue for larceny, and a repository for hooliganistic violence perpetrated by local gangland thugs. The hotel is, in other words, a crucial device for story organisation and direction.

Similarly, when Arthur and the character of Teesdale visit Miss Glendenning in hospital, we are convinced by a clever re-working of Larkin's poem 'The Building', whose labyrinthine impersonality is mirrored in foreboding: 'They joined the silent crowds of visitors trudging the endless corridor', and, 'an abyss of white heads on white pillows plunging to indistinct windows'. That this lengthy episode is essential to the development of Tulloch's plotline is embellished, rather than otherwise, by the pastiche.

But the conceit works less well when used over-liberally: ships up streets, fields observed fleetingly through train windows, posters of 'Sunny Prestatyn' observed en passant, almost as though the writer was trying to persuade by an over-arching attrition of meta-narrative detail.

More persuasive is Tulloch's delineation of Merryweather's growing obsession with Niamh O'Leary, daughter of an Irish catholic dentist, library colleague, and fictional proxy for one third of Larkin's misogynistic love interest, Maeve Brennan. Merryweather/Larkin's cognitive dissonance respecting women is neatly drawn; making allowances for the status of women generally in the fifties, we witness a catalogue of unacknowledged inconsistencies.

The objectivisation of Niamh - Arthur mentally undresses her at every opportunity - and the appearance mid-narrative of a hidden, occasional sexual partner (otherwise Monica Jones), are to some extent ameliorated by a sincere love story. Shared bicycle-clipped journeys around the flat hinterlands of a town at the end of the world remove the narrative to a plain of fumbling, On Chesil Beach naivety, where the good manners ('beg pardon' applied at every turn) and reticence of a bygone era get in the way of passionate declaration.

Finally breaking through the permafrost of hopeless self-restraint, Arthur finds his own metaphor to describe the sense of release, in a genuinely affecting epiphany on Niamh's doorstep:

"'I knew you were a poet.'
All at once, the puppeteer had been overthrown - he was reaching out to her. Her hand was reaching out too. Now the hands were shaking. Then, just as his other hand was edging over to tenderly take her cheek - 'I'll see you tomorrow then, Arthur,' she said stepping back.
'Yes, indeed. Tomorrow.'"

The rendition seems authentic to the originating figure, and in a novel that continually reinforces its own sense of debt we can only measure verisimilitude. The pinched, curmudgeonly Arthur, given (not entirely successfully here) to a radical over-enthusiasm for swearing, and a sociopathic tendency to keep others at a distance, is also capable of great humour and warmth. The narrative is punctuated with frequent letters to his mother, and to a nameless writer friend - a variation on Kingsley Amis - to whom the newly-published poet vents about his appalling digs, and even more appalling, Blackpool-stereotype landlady, now referred to as 'Old Ma Glenners' in characteristic post-war vernacular.

Mr Bleaney, whose own narrative dissipates as the story progresses, is an alter ego. The insurance salesman whose life mirrors Merryweather/Larkin's own, is a product of the latter's imagination, and unknown, tangible only through anecdote, to the former. For Merryweather, Bleaney is a poem waiting to be written.

The anticipation of poetry gives meaning and purpose to a future which is already vouchsafed; the newly-published Arthur, whose aspirations so impress the instinctive Niamh, is finding poetry as he finds his feet in this smelly town on the East coast of England. Every action cauterizes a potential poetic reaction in the mind of the fledgling poet: a touchingly drawn visit to Niamh's church late in the novel is the clear catalyst for a poem which defined Larkin's own inherent ambivalence towards churchgoing. 

The unambiguous title of this well-wrought 'fiction' nails any doubt as to affiliation, and only a writer of extraordinary perspicacity and ambition will breathe organic life into this most elusive and speculative of poets. If that is possible, Tulloch succeeds to some degree: with great humour, and extensive research, he envisions a life, a city and an era running parallel to knowledge drip-fed through the cannula of biography.

A sense of becoming defines Larkinland, and in an examination of the embryonic fumblings of a poet, a poem is about to be formed, 'like something almost being said'

Review by Frank Lawton, The TLS

Friday, November 10, 2017

Larkinland might sound like a theme park for misanthropes and librarians, but don’t be fooled: it is a fun place to spend a few hours, and well worth the entry price. Jonathan Tulloch’s new novel is full of wit, smart observation and, yes, Philip Larkin. Set in 1950s Hull, a place “beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line, like a brick seal with a woodbine in its gob”, Larkinland weaves a delightfully dour tapestry from the cloth of Larkin’s poetry (liberally quoted throughout).
The novel opens with the Larkin-surrogate Arthur Merryweather, a bespectacled librarian and aspiring poet, moving into a room “that would flatter a coffin”: his landlady tells him, “this was Mr. Bleaney’s room”, an insurance salesman who has recently vanished, leaving only an eddy of rumour in his wake. Three deftly connected narratives play out from this desolate room, as Merryweather is drawn into a mysterious spate of petty thefts across the city, a stunted romance with his assistant librarian, and the fate of the enigmatic Bleaney. Connecting all three are an assortment of local worthies and oddballs who drift in and out of each narrative, from the local hoodlum Titch Thomas to the absurd lodger Teesdale, a fur salesman of Dickensian proportions who hopes to make his fortune harvesting the coats of giant hamsters.
For all the characters present though, it is the perennially absent Bleaney who haunts Merryweather’s imagination, a ghost slowly becoming his muse. Bleaney is further entwined with Merryweather’s life by the realization that they are body doubles (leading to an inevitable case of mistaken identity). Thus, in a playful triangulation, Larkin, the character he immortalized in his poem (Bleaney), and their fictional double (Merryweather) conflate, each a part or version of the other. At times, the cleverness of this parallel can feel clumsy; ““aren’t you frightened of becoming just like your Mr. Bleaney?” Merryweather is asked”. But it helps that Tulloch is an excellent author of dialogue, has an ear well tuned to comic timing and a relish for pithy phrasing (a naked bulb turns “Gestapo-bright”; the overweening landlady moves “soundless as a draft”). It is these qualities that make Larkinland such an enjoyable guide through the greyness, the class anxieties and attendant social comedy of post-war Britain.



Review by Karen Heenan-Davies, BookerTalk

Sunday, August 27, 2017

I’ve never visited Hull, a city on the Humber Estuary in Yorkshire, England, though I came close to doing so in the mid 1970s when I applied for a place on the University of Hull’s law degree programme and was invited for an open day. The prospect of a five hour car journey north in February was rather unappealing however so I came up with some excuse or other to wriggle out of the visit. Had I made it I would have found a bleak port city well past its prime, a city that the poet Philip Larkin described as “fish smelling” and “a dump”. It’s all changed significantly since that time – Hull in fact is the European City of Culture for 2017 but who could possibly have predicted that a few decades ago?

Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death).  A month after his arrival he began slagging the place, moaning to a friend: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Every day I sink a little further.” then later declaring: “What a hole, what witless, crapulous people. … I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice and flat for cycling.” There’s a wonderful documentary about Larkin and Hull available via You Tube if you want more background on his time in the city.

This is the city Jonathan Tulloch evokes superbly in his novel Larkinland. It’s a world of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms whose landladies expect strict adherence to fixed meal times and bath routines. Into this world steps Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) newly recruited as university librarian who finds digs in Miss Glendenning’s establishment in a room about the size of a police cell furnished with rickety chair, narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Not an inspiring creative bolthole in which Arthur can pursue his ambition of becoming a successful poet like his already-published friend. Yet it’s considered  her best room and is especially liked by the landlady because it was once occupied by her favourite tenant, the insurance salesman Mr Bleaney who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. She’s more than ready to transfer her affections to Mr Merryweather, picturing for him the delights of an evening a deux listening to the radio.

Unfortunately for Merryweather he bears a physical resemblance to Bleaney who police suspect may be implicated in a spate of robberies around the city. Just when Merryweather thinks his life is taking a turn for the better via a budding romance with his fellow librarian Niamh O’Leary (another reference to Larkin’s life) and publication of some of his poems in a magazine, he gets caught up in the criminal underworld of Hull. Merryweather is a hapless creature, forever getting into misadventures even when he is trying his best to just be normal, a habit which gives rise to some farce-like episodes of missed trains and incoming tides. Like Larkin himself, Merryweather is a jazz fan and aspiring poet whose first impressions of Hull are not positive. Until he’d actually arrived to take up his new post he’d never heard of “this place beached on the mudflats at the end of the railway line.” Stepping out on his first evening he finds:

The stroll under the line of sycamores would even have verged on the pleasant if not for the piles of dog dirt one had to negotiate. The early Saturday evening queue at the trolleybus stop was long and gregarious. Working men’s club and bingo bound no doubt. Most of those waiting seemed to know each other. Was he the only one wearing a trilby? The other men ether sported the cloth cap of the locale or despite the drizzle went bareheaded. Severe short back and sides for the most part, but a whole group of starkly luxuriant quiffs: teddy boys.

His second expedition is little better:

Avoiding last night’s back lanes, the librarian soon found himself wandering through a forest of cranes, and inching over narrow, bouncing bridges, which arced disconcertingly over deep, froth-flecked canals. The smell of fish thickened. A sudden ship loomed over a terrace end like a beached whale, and then there was the river itself, a wide grey mile, and beyond that the indistinct infinity of the sea.

But just as Larkin himself came to appreciate Hull more fully (he commented once that “it suits me in many ways. It is a little on the edge of things, … I rather like being on the edge of things.”), so Merryweather warms to the city. Returning by train from a strained weekend with a sort-of lover, he looks up from his book of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry to find:

… the world had become full of seagulls. The train was drawing alongside the river. Seagulls and the river’s levelling drift, the far bank’s unbeckoning netherland. The dreary liminal beauty tugged at Merryweather. He was back. Back home? Hardly  that. Yet could one really be feeling some attachment to this Trades Union Venice on its kipper lagoon…?

At times hilarious, Larkinland is part mystery, part love story and partly a story about hope and desire. To all of this Tulloch adds a pitch-perfect realisation of the bleak mundanity of daily life – the very glumness about emotions, places, and relationships that were in fact the hallmark of Larkin’s poetry.

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