Life at the Larkins: Philip Larkin

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'WHEN I try to tune into my childhood, the dominant emotions I pick up are, overwhelmingly, fear and boredom. Although I have an elder sister, the . . . difference in our ages made me feel an only child, and I suppose those feelings are characteristic.

'My father was intensely shy, inhibited not robust, devoid of careless sensual instincts (though not of humour), and I don't think he did well to choose a wife of the same pattern. The only point where they differed was that while my father's brain was dominating, active and keen, my mother was made to trust and follow, and in that respect they were well suited, at any rate at first.

'What kind of home did they create . . .? I should say it was dull, pot-bound, and slightly mad. By the time I knew it, my father worked all day and shut himself away reading in the evening, or else gardened. My mother constantly toiled at 'running the house', a task that was always beyond her, even with the aid of the resident maid and daily help. My sister, whose qualities of literal-mindedness and fantasy-spinning had infuriated my father until he made her life a misery, did not have many friends and endured, I should say, a pallid existence until she took up art, and even then day classes at Midland Art School did not lead to the excitements they should have. I don't think my father liked working or gardening, I don't think my mother liked keeping house, I don't think my sister liked living at home. Yet they all seemed powerless to do anything about it. There was a curious tense boredom about the house; it was not a bad house, but the furniture was uninteresting, except for my father's books. It was not a house where anyone called unexpectedly, for my father had no friends - at least, I couldn't name anyone who was a friend as I understand the word.

'However, the trouble wasn't the house but the individuals in it. 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 us to 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. I never left the house without the sense of walking into a cooler, cleaner, saner and pleasanter atmosphere, and, if I had not made friends outside, life would have been scarcely tolerable.

'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. His first child, my sister, he thought little better than a mental defective, who was showing regrettably few signs of marrying and clearing out. Second child, myself, lived in a private world, disregarding what awkward overtures he could make, and was handicapped by an embarrassing stammer . . . None the less, I think the situation was technically his fault. His personality had imposed that taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life on the family, and it was only to be expected that it would make them miserable and that their misery would react on him. And despite the fact that my mother grew to be such an obsessive snivelling pest, I think if my father had handled her properly she would have done much better.

'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. It would be somewhat absurd of me to regret his marriage, but I could never see why he needed a wife. He liked his own company best and gloried in his ability to look after himself, and his clumsiness in human relations must have made him an unsatisfactory husband, which in turn must have put a certain strain on him. 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.'

In 1939, Larkin drew the cartoon above of a scene at home in Manor Road, Coventry

ME: (Just a cross section of our family life)

POP: The British Govt have started this war . . . Hitler has done all he could for peace . . . well, all I hope is that we get smashed to Hades . . . our army is useless. ARP? Ha, Ha] This is the end of civilisation . . . after all, man has to be superseded sooner or later . . . we're only a stage in the earth's development . . . a very unimportant stage, too . . .

MOP: Oh, do you think so? I wonder what we ought to have for lunch tomorrow . . . don't scrape the floor like that, Philip, remember I have to do all the work . . . well I hope Hitler falls on a banana skin . . . by the way, I only washed four shirts today . . .

SISTER: . . . yes but when we got back from Munich I was so tired that I couldn't go to Fussen at night to dance so George asked Joyce where I was - George was the Storm Trooper . . . and Joyce said 'my friend is rather tired tonight', and do you know, he came all the way back . . .

From an unpublished autobiographical fragment written by Larkin in the 1950s, and found among his papers after his death Estate of Philip Larkin