One of my blog entries last week included references to William Shakespeare's Coventry connections. Last night's BBC 4 documentaries "Return to Larkinland" and "Through the Lens of Larkin" about the life and works of Coventry born Poet Laureate Philip Larkin has prompted me to take a look at a few more Coventry literary connections.
Although Larkin is more associated with Hull, the previous "City of Culture", some efforts have been made to showcase the Coventry connection. The pub previously known as the "Tudor Rose" (and "Tally Ho" in my youth) has now been renamed the "Philip Larkin".
One of Larkin's poems (I Remember I Remember) refers to Coventry station close to his childhood home in Manor Road and school (King Henry VIII grammar school). The poem suggests a troubled childhood and less than happy memories of his home city (Larkin was born in Radford in 1922). Larkin's poems also include a work describing conflicts with his father Sydney who was City Treasurer and Nazi sympathiser. Sydney was considered to be a very effective administrator and admired the "efficiency" of the pre-war German government to the extent of taking 15 year old Philip to Nuremberg to witness Hitler addressing his followers. He tempered his views during the build-up and outbreak of war and continued to hold his City Treasurer position.
I Remember I Remember:
Coming up England by a different line For once, early in the cold new year, We stopped, and, watching men with number plates Sprint down the platform to familiar gates, "Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."
I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign That this was still the town that had been 'mine' So long, but found I wasn't even clear Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates Were standing, had we annually departed
For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went: Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots. 'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?' No, only where my childhood was unspent, I wanted to retort, just where I started:
By now I've got the whole place clearly charted. Our garden, first: where I did not invent Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits, And wasn't spoken to by an old hat. And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed, The boys all biceps and the girls all chest, Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be 'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that, The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'. And, in those offices, my doggerel Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,
Who didn't call and tell my father There Before us, had we the gift to see ahead - 'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,' My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well, I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.
'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'
Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1840 "Godiva" poem also has connections with Coventry station.
Part of this poem is quoted on the plinth of the Godiva statue in Broadgate.
Tennyson opens his poem by explaining that he is looking at the view of the three spires of Coventry from Warwick Road bridge at the city's railway station:
I waited for the train at Coventry; I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge, To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped The city's ancient legend into this: Not only we, the latest seed of Time, New men, that in the flying of a wheel Cry down the past, not only we, that prate Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well, And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she Did more, and underwent, and overcame
Tennyson goes on to recount the story of Godiva's naked ride through Coventry to relieve the people of the tax imposed on them by her husband Leofric (who had set down the ride as a challenge to her protests against taxation).
The station was close to its present site and the view of the spires would have been similar to that of today when looking down on the city from Warwick Road. Tennyson would have been amongst the first passengers to have visited the station - originally buit in 1838 and expanded and slightly relocated in1840. He comments on the "progress" of the steam age and "forward looking" attitudes :
"...... we, the latest seed of Time, New men, that in the flying of a wheel Cry down the past......"
These attitudes were not necessarily shared by all of the population of the Coventry which Tennyson was looking over. At that time the three spires of Christchurch (Greyfriars), St Michaels and Holy Trinity sat as part of one of the most preserved medieval towns in England. The craft industries of ribbon weaving and watchmaking were still based in family workshops. The emergenge of the city's first steam loom was met with rioting and subsequent transportation of the rioters (including some sentences which were reduced from the death penalty after widespread unrest).
Although lagging behind some of the towns of the Midlands and the North in the take-up of new manufacturing techniques, Coventry wasn't without influence in the development of the "industrial revolution". The completion of Coventry Canal had seen the final piece in the jigsaw of pioneering engineer James Brindley's vision of connecting the navigable waterways of the Severn, Trent, Thames and Mersey into a national network to take coal and raw materials into the factories and bring goods to the markets of the major cities and ports (and to take most advantage of a growing empire). The Coventry Canal Company was largely financed by local colliery owners looking at moving their product more efficiently around the country. Although the newly emerging railways were to have a huge impact on the transportation of goods, the canal network was still seen as an option commercially where speed was not of the essence right up to the end of WWII.
The railways became more important to Coventry as industrialisation caught up in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the twentieth - particularly with the rise of the motor and arms industries. The Cammell-Laird Ordnance works at Red Lane was the largest factory space in Europe when opened in 1906 and had a railway running through the centre of the factory. This was to become a spur of Coventry's industrial loop line which connected the area's collieries, factories and power stations to each other and to the national rail network right up until the late 1980s when components and cars still made their way to and from the Peugeot factory at Humber Rd (which had seen various incarnations including Humber, Rootes, Chrysler, Talbot and Peugeot). Jimmy Hill Way now follows part of the loop line's route. Another of its points was at "Three Spires Junction" which was close to Coventry Station and to Tennyson's view of the three spires as he penned the Godiva poem.
During the 1980s I was employed as a building labourer with the now defunct West Midlands County Council. I had been taken on as part of the "Task Force" group which recruited amongst the local unemployed to work on regeneration projects across Coventry. This was set up in reaction to industrial decline and outbreaks of rioting and unrest (as was the funding behind the regeneration of the Canal Basin). One of the projects involved the laying of solid foopaths along the canal towpath and the depot / training centre was on George Eliot Rd adjacent to the canal in Foleshill. The site is now a Hindu temple and I am hoping to pay a visit as part of my "Coventry Ramble" project when things get back to normality.
George Eliot Road is named after the famous writer as she spent much of her early life at "Bird Grove" - a large elegant house on the road which until recently had been used as a Bangladeshi resource centre. It was from her time at Bird Grove that Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot was her pen name) came into contact with Charles Bray and the Rosehill Circle - a group of Bohemian liberal thinkers and social reformers.These were however practical people and Bray was central to setting up the local co-operative movement and an associate of the Cash brothers who built their factory with the welfare of the textile workers in mind. I shall also be dealing in detail with the Rosehill group in detail in my "Coventry Ramble" publication.
I live on the edge of the area of Wyken / Stoke known as "Poet's Corner" - part of a 1930s housing development with many of the roads being named after lierary figures e.g Tennyson Road, Lord Lytton Avenue, Emerson Road. American philospher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had links with Bray's Coventry based Rosehill Circle. Notable ommisions in Poet's Corner are Shakespeare and Dickens as earlier constructed roads in older parts of the city had already taken on their names. Charles Dickens did make many visits to Coventry and performed a rendition of "A Christmas Carol" at the Corn Exchange (which stood on the site of the "Dog & Trumpet" pub in Hertford Street. It is said that Dickens took inspiration from Whitefriars' Gatehouse in Little Park Street when developing the "Little Curiosity Shop"
I'll be looking further at Coventry's literary connections in future posts and also reviewing some recent publications both fictional and factual. I'm experincing some minor health issues which are keeping me in at the moment but hope it is not too long before I'm off for a local stroll amongst the poets..........