Martin Chilton remembers his father’s friendship with the poet, and recalls a lost age of independent bookshopsby / February 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin in his poem “An Arundel Tomb.” That line came to mind recently when I walked past a tiny coffee shop in Bloomsbury. Between 1968 and 1982, it was the site of one of London’s quirkiest independents, the Bloomsbury Bookshop, founded by my late mother, Teresa Chilton. It was also the shop from which Larkin used to buy rare jazz books. The poet struck up a friendship with the Chilton family, which showed a very different side to the man than we usually read about. Regarded as unfriendly and cantankerous, Larkin was to us a perfect gentleman, generous and kindly.
Jazz and literature were a constant feature of my childhood. When the bookshop opened, I was three years old and my sister Jenny four. For mum, the business fulfilled her dream of opening a jazz bookshop and although the address sounded grand—31-35 Great Ormond Street, London, WC1—the shop was little bigger than a kiosk. Later, I worked there on Saturdays and during school holidays. It was a goldmine of eccentric material: everything from first edition novels, to books about palmistry, music and sport—but mainly jazz.
Larkin grew up idolising Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, the New Orleans musician who was the subject of one of his sweetest poems (“On me your voice falls as they say love should/Like an enormous yes”). In 1965, he said he could live a week without poetry—but not a day without jazz. By then the jazz critic of the Daily Telegraph, he began corresponding with my late father John Chilton in 1970 about his co-written book on Armstrong. John had been a jazz trumpeter since his teenage years, playing with American stars such as Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster. He combined playing music with a career as a jazz historian that would eventually earn him a Grammy in 1983 for his album notes for a Bunny Berigan boxset.
That year Larkin picked John’s Who’s Who of Jazz as his book of the year. He wrote to thank Larkin, telling him that he was considering a second volume, From Bop to Full Stop! This was a jazz-lover’s in-joke: for John, as for Larkin, it was jazz from the 1920s to the 1950s that really mattered. Larkin wrote back on 1st October, 1970, reminiscing about how much he loved the 1920s pianist and singer Bob Howard, adding: “I find it difficult to believe you will be able to summon the same enthusiasm for [Charlie] Parker and his colleagues. I try hard to be broad minded, but somehow it just refuses to register with me.”
Larkin called the Who’s Who a “monumental achievement,” but admitted he was puzzled by one aspect. In an unpublished letter,* the poet wrote: “I was a little amused by the anti-sensational tone of your entries, particularly by the absence of any hint that liquor ever sullied the lips of Berigan [trumpeter Bunny Berigan] or Bix [trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke] or any other of jazz’s poor unfortunate alcoholics. I quite sympathise with this, but it clashes slightly with your policy of giving the cause of death fairly exactly.”
It took John four months to answer (a broken ankle and the birth of my younger brother Barney intervened). But in February 1971, he told Larkin that real cause of Beiderbecke’s death at the age of 28 was not just alcohol but a “gruesome story” involving gangsters. The reason he had not published the true account was because both of his sources were well-known jazz musicians. He told Larkin that he had not wish to see them “fitted with cement overcoats!”
A different side to the usually curmudgeonly Larkin was displayed when he replied to an aspiring jazz singer called Susannah McCorkle, who had written to him asking for help. Larkin told her to get in contact with John, whom he praised as “part-author of a magnificent book on Louis Armstrong, besides being a first-rate traditional trumpeter.”
Writing to John in a tone more familiar from his boyish exchanges with Kingsley Amis, Larkin said McCorkle “may be an almighty fool and bore for all I know, but she sounds sensible enough, if a little brash.” He apologised to John “for landing this on you,” but admitted he was “slightly touched by the idea of an American girl setting out to conquer London as a jazz singer.”
McCorkle ended up playing gigs in London, including with John’s band. He sent Larkin some cuttings from Melody Maker. “Dear Philip Larkin, just in case you haven’t seen the Melody Maker lately, I’ve enclosed a cutting concerning the Chilton-Larkin Entertainment Supply Company’s first star. No acknowledgement needed, Yours sincerely, John Chilton.”
In a short response, dated 11th June, 1973, Larkin wrote: “I am so glad she surfaced, and proved not too bad. I really had no way of telling. The idea of myself as a latter-day Brian Epstein is rather agreeable.” McCorkle went on to have a sparkling career as a singer, recording 21 albums and performing regularly at Carnegie Hall. But there was a tragic finale. McCorkle, like Larkin, suffered from depression and in 2001, at the age of 55, she leapt to her death from the balcony of a New York apartment.
In 1976, Larkin saw that John’s band the Feetwarmers—a collaboration with George Melly—would be playing a gig in Leicester, the town where he grew up. He suggested selling all his old jazz magazines (Downbeat and Jazz Journal) to the Bloomsbury Bookshop. After being sent a cheque for £70, Larkin wrote to say: “Please thank Mrs Chilton for the generous interpretation of our arrangement: her cheque will help my Christmas to be rather more merry than it would have been otherwise.”
Larkin never came to the shop in person—famously he didn’t like London. He would have been amazed at how small it was, though. The place needed constant re-stocking, hence many childhood trips to jumble sales, bric-a-brac stalls and charity shops. The best find at a market stall was a rare first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses—alas, sold for a few hundred pounds to pay the rent when my parents were broke; it’s now worth hundreds of thousands.
You never knew who would drop in. Regulars included Marx Brothers scriptwriter SJ Perelman. It became family folklore when an old friend of mum’s, holding the fort for the afternoon, failed to recognised Muhammad Ali, who had wandered in to look at a biography of himself in the window. Graham Greene also came in once and chatted with John about jazz in Cuba. They talked about character names and how the author had been forced to apologise to the real Harold Diddlebock, after using the name in the title of a film screenplay. “I now always make a special point of avoiding any name that might be recognised,” Greene said. Of course, in his next novel, The Human Factor, Greene dropped in a character called Mr Chilton.
Even in the 1980s, Larkin continued to write to John with queries about jazz biographies—and not only jazz. On 16th Apri, 1981, he asked my mum Teresa for a copy of a book called All Together Now. “It is, I am ashamed to say, a discography of the Beatles,” he wrote of the group whose first LP, as he wrote in his poem “Annus Mirabilis,” marked the start of the sexual revolution.
That was just a year before the shop closed due to a combination of rising costs and my mum’s desire to become a mature student. Larkin sent her a note, expressing his sympathy, along with a copy of The North Ship, inscribed “for Teresa Chilton, one of London’s few civilising influences.”
There are now fewer than a thousand independent bookshops in the UK. Doubtless the present Hull librarian finds more efficient ways of ordering books than writing letters to a second-hand bookshop in Bloomsbury. But I miss the treasure-trove’s dusty joys. As Larkin wrote in his elegy to the past, “Home is So Sad,” for a time it was “a joyous shot at how things ought to be.”
*Quoted here with the kind permission of The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Philip Larkin