Martin Chilton remembers his father’s friendship with the poet, and recalls a lost age of independent bookshopsby Martin Chilton / 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.”