Robert Messenger reviews a collection of Philip Larkin’s letters to his mother, his sister, his lovers and others. Along the way, Messenger quotes a presumably autobiographical note by Larkin first published in Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet:
My mother, as time went on, began increasingly to complain of her dreary life, her inability to run the house, and the approach of war. I suppose her age had something to do with it, but the monotonous whining monologue she treated my father to before breakfast, and all of us at mealtimes, resentful, self-pitying, full of funk and suspicion, must have remained in my mind as something I mustn’t under any circumstances risk encountering again. Once she sprang from the table announcing her intention to commit suicide…
My father’s state of mind at this time cannot have been cheerful. His wife had made home a place where he simply had to shut his mouth and bear it as best he could… I remember once saying to him that, after all, I supposed he had had a successful life. His humourless yap of laughter left no doubt as to what he thought on the subject… Certainly the marriage left me with two convictions: that human beings should not live together, and that children should be taken from their parents at an early age.
Little wonder Sydney Larkin harbored a certain sympathy for the Nazi regime. But from 1922 to 1948, the Larkins were based – of all places – in Coventry. Sydney served as the city’s treasurer and was much respected in this role. When Coventry got bombed in 1940, “he congratulated himself on his foresight in having ordered 1,000 cardboard coffins the previous year.” A prescient allocation of public funds. No mention of a turnaround in political sympathies.
Actually, much of this must be a cruel caricature. Andrew Motion quotes Larkin on the contents of his father’s library:
… not only the principal works of most main English writers in some form or other… but also nearly-complete collections of authors my father favoured – Hardy, Bennett, Wilde, Butler and Shaw, and later on Lawrence, Huxley and Katherine Mansfield. Not till I was much older did I realise that most boys of my age were brought up to regard Galsworthy and Chesterton as the apex of modern literature, and to think of Somerset Maugham as ‘a bit hot’. I was therefore lucky.