They may not mean to, but they do: Part one of the authorised biography of Philip Larkin

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Philip Larkin called his childhood 'a forgotten boredom'. The truth was much stranger: home was 'slightly mad'; his father had Nazi sympathies; his mother's whining monologues left him 'twitching and boiling'. All this, along with the friendships and enthusiasms which he formed at Oxford, and his difficulties with girls, helped to shape his poetry

THIS BE THE VERSE

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin, April 1971

AS SOON as he knew he was going to be Treasurer for the City of Coventry, Sydney Larkin told his wife Eva that the time was right for them to have another child. They both wanted a boy (their daughter Kitty was nearly 10 years old), and on 9 August 1922, on a night with a full moon, they got their wish: he was nearly a month late, weighed almost 10 pounds, and had luxuriant black hair. Eva wanted to call him Anthony but Sydney overruled her, arguing for Philip and Sydney. They compromised on Philip Arthur - Philip after the Renaissance poet Philip Sidney, Arthur after Eva's brother - and early in September he was christened in Coventry Cathedral. It was a mark of Sydney's pleasure in having a son that he suspended his disbelief in Christianity for the day.

Larkin was pampered and indulged all through his earliest years, yet he never deviated from the view that his childhood was a 'forgotten boredom'. (He was pleased to remember that 'one of my mother's stories about me as a baby is how she could never keep me amused - every fresh thing put into my hands lasted me only a few minutes, then the wail began again.') Expanding on his notorious phrase towards the end of his life, he said: 'Children are often bored, I think. They don't control their destinies, and they don't do what they want or live where they want. This isn't to say I didn't have nice friends I visited and played with and so on, or that my parents weren't perfectly kind to me, but when I read accounts of other people's childhoods they always seem more lurid and exciting than mine was. It seemed to have a fairly insulated quality that looking back on I can't quite account for.'

Some of the reasons for this 'insulation' aren't hard to find. Even when he was a very small child, Larkin's eyesight was weak; his 'long back and comparatively short legs' made him ungainly; and by the age of four he had started to stammer badly. 'It was,' he said, 'on words beginning with vowels rather than consonants . . . There was no obvious reason for it: no left-handedness or physical accidents. If I had some deep traumatic experience I've forgotten it. This went on up to the age of 35 or so, after which the impediment slowly faded away, only to return when I am tired or confronted with a 'stammering situation' - post offices, for instance.'

'A stammer can be grown out of,' Larkin believed, 'if it has arisen simply from self- consciousness and shyness.' In his case, it seems to have had more to do with his father, or with the atmosphere of home. In the first decade of their marriage, his parents hadn't stopped loving each other, but their feelings had gone musty. Sydney needed Eva to be placid, he demanded that she be the home- maker (even when it meant denying the intelligence that had drawn him to her in the first place), but he also despised her for it. Later in life Larkin would describe how he came to consciousness with the sound of them 'Bickering stupidly at home / My fault, their fault'. There was very little outspoken anger, but the sense that it was always just about to begin - an atmosphere of clenched irritation which curdled the whole experience of childhood. 'I hated everybody when I was a child,' he said, 'or thought I did. When I grew up, I realised that what I hated was children.'

During these years, Sydney, fearsome and hard-driving, turned himself into a figure of considerable authority. He joined the local chess club. He gave papers to the Literary and Philosophical Society (including one on Hardy). He gained a reputation as an accomplished after-dinner speaker. He paid for his family to hear and watch things he reckoned would do them good: Shakespeare at Stratford, music in Coventry. And thanks to Sydney, as Larkin later wrote, the house contained 'not only the principal works of most main English writers in some form or other (admittedly there were exceptions, like Dickens), 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. Knowing what its effect would be on me, my father concealed the existence of the Central Public Library as long as he could.'

But in one respect Sydney also became an embarrassment. 'I think,' Larkin later said, '(my father) described himself as a Conservative Anarchist, but what that means I don't know.' In fact he knew all too well. During the 1920s Sydney's politics gradually swung to the right, and by the end of the decade he was 'an active and impenitent admirer' of Germany's post-war recovery, and of Hitler's role in achieving this. Eventually, in the 1930s, it was rumoured around Coventry that he was 'a member of (the neo-Nazi organisation) The Link'. The Link was never a large outfit. Founded by Admiral Sir Barry Domvile in June 1937 as a means of promoting 'Anglo- German friendship', it had a clientele of mainly ordinary people in ordinary towns, who had little influence. By the end of 1937 it had grown quickly and established four branches - in Chelsea, Southend, west London and Birmingham - where members ranged from the most innocent of provincial pro-Germanists to convinced pro-Nazis of a fairly disquieting kind. Early in 1939, on the eve of war, it grew still larger by affiliating itself to the Anglo-German Brotherhood, but when war actually broke out it shrivelled at once. It was declared a proscribed organisation and disbanded.

Even if Sydney hesitated to join The Link, he was certainly sympathetic to many of its principles. Throughout the 1920s he made no secret of his respect for the efficiency of the National Socialists, often recommending them to his son. During the 1930s his enthusiasm would quicken dramatically. He entered into correspondence with H G H (Hjalmar) Schacht, Hitler's Minister of Economics from 1934 to 1937, and the man widely credited with bringing German inflation under control. Sydney visited Germany regularly. He frequently expressed his 'admiration' for its recent successes.

While denying that Sydney was part of a specific organisation, Larkin admitted that his father was 'the sort of person that democracy didn't suit'. There was an innocent side to this: Sydney admired Germany for its technical advances and its 'office methods'. But there were more sinister aspects as well. 'According to Philip,' says John Kenyon, a drinking companion of Larkin's and formerly Professor of History at Hull, Sydney 'had been an ardent follower of the Nazis and attended several Nuremberg rallies during the 1930s; he even had a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece (at home) which at the touch of a button leapt into a Nazi salute.'

Sydney's Deputy Treasurer in Coventry, Alan Marshall, reluctantly confirms this. As late as 1939, Sydney had Nazi regalia decorating his office in City Hall, and when war was declared he was ordered by the Town Clerk to remove it. 'Sydney took the point,' Marshall says, 'but continued to express his admiration for Germany. He wasn't very good at realising what impression he was making, or he didn't care.' He didn't even change his tune when Coventry was blitzed in November 1940. Instead, he congratulated himself on his foresight in having ordered 1,000 cardboard coffins the previous year, and continued to praise 'efficient German administration' while disparaging Churchill - who had, he thought, 'the face of a criminal in the dock'.

As a young child, Larkin wouldn't have understood the intricacies and implications of his father's politics, but as a way of establishing the mood in the family home their importance can't easily be exaggerated. Sydney Larkin was generous to his son, and often indulged him, but nevertheless strutted through his early life with a singular arrogance. He was intolerant to the point of perversity, contemptuous of women, careless of other people's feelings or fates, yet at the same time excitingly intellectual, inspirationally quick-witted, and (at least in the matter of books) unpredictably catholic in his tastes. Everything Larkin disliked or feared in his father was matched by something he found impressive or enviable.

Far from being 'forgotten', the 'boredom' of Larkin's first few years stayed with him for ever. To be the adored only son, to have a comfortable house full of good books, and to have annual holidays (in places such as Bigbury-on-Sea, Folkestone, and Caton Bay near Filey in Yorkshire) could not compensate for the 'drab' marriage of his parents, the 'intimidating' atmosphere of their home, and the web of disapproval that Sydney had woven round it. The effect was to drive Larkin in on himself even before he had discovered the alternative world of school - let alone the wider reaches of Coventry and beyond.

Visitors to the Larkin home in Manor Road remember a large-faced, long-haired child haunting its gloomy rooms in silence, or hanging around the adults with awkward reverence until told he could disappear to his bedroom. Even in this sanctuary he was vulnerable. No matter how much he protested that he was happiest poring over the Magnet, talking to his toys (a teddy bear, a dog called Rags, and a rabbit, which eventually met its end falling into a bowl of mint sauce), collecting pennies and cigarette cards, or playing with his Hornby train set, the adult world

kept demanding that he come downstairs and join in.

As the first half of Larkin's childhood dripped away, the mixture of feelings he had for his family gradually thickened. By early adolescence - stimulated by the desire to seem superior and separate - it had turned into rage. 'Please believe me,' he told his first important friend, 'when I say that half my days are spent in black, surging, twitching, boiling HATE]]]'

'I WOULD rather leave a child on the steps of an orphanage than send one to public school,' said Sydney. The boys' grammar school within walking distance of Manor Road - King Henry VIII School, or KHS as everyone called it - was where he decided Philip should go. When he first took his son to meet the headmaster in September 1930, walking in under the tall central redbrick tower, he was told: 'Philip won't come out this way again until he's a prefect.'

Larkin would later insist that his schooldays were almost completely uneventful. He was, he told everyone, 'unsuccessful', urging them to remember that he 'was very short-sighted and . . . also that I stammered, so that classes were just me sitting with bated breath dreading lest I be called upon to say something'. As far as his academic performance was concerned, at least until he reached the sixth form, his description is accurate enough. Studious rather than sparkling, he tried hard to seem ordinary. Away from his teachers he created a different impression. While remaining shy he was strongly opinionated - and also proud, confident, and contemptuous of those set in authority over him.

As Larkin's self-confidence grew, his manner and looks began to alter. The mole-like, fuzzy-haired child, peering apprehensively through small round glasses, was soon nearly six feet tall, thin, gangling, and openly seeking attention. He grew his hair long, Brylcreeming it, parting it in the middle, and combing it 'very assiduously'. He began to take an interest in painting, and enjoyed his weekly art classes, where he showed a natural ability for drawing. (When Larkin eventually left KHS it crossed Sydney's mind that he should send his son to art school. Nothing came of the idea. In later life the only surviving signs of Larkin's early enthusiasm were the skilful, fluent cartoons with which he often decorated his letters and notebooks.) To suit these new artistic allegiances, he began wearing boldly patterned sports coats and grey flannel trousers and - at the weekends - flashy bow ties.

His friends thought it merely turned him from looking like a swot into a natty swot. It wasn't the effect Larkin intended, and as he moved up through the school he modified his appearance carefully. Term by term, he cast off the dullness of Manor Road and took on the bright colours he associated not only with painters but with the Romantic and fin de siecle writers he had begun to read. If no suitable models came to mind among writers, he turned to musicians instead. Before reaching the sixth form, according to his friend Noel Hughes, he had started to promenade round Coventry wearing 'a green . . . jacket with a red tie which was envied greatly. He also had yellow knitted gloves which were considered de rigueur particularly when worn with the hacking mac he also sported. He wore brogue shoes when no one else had heard of them.'

Although Sydney financed this exoticism, it was Larkin's contemporaries at school who were responsible for the change in him. Previously, while recognising that 'friends are necessary: you cannot howl to yourself', he had been forced to share the aloof life of his parents. Girls had been especially difficult. At 'the age of five', he wrote, he had 'conceived a violent passion for a little girl named Mary who had 'lovely pussy gloves' (gloves with fur on the back)' and 'tried to make advances to her' - only to be 'violently repelled'. The embarrassment lasted for years, festering in solitude. His sister's friends were too old for him to feel that he could belong in their world. There were no girls at his school or in his friends' families. He got used to living without them, slowly learning to look on 'sexual recreation as a socially remote thing, like baccarat or clog dancing'.

In the summer of 1936 Sydney took his son with him on a visit to Germany, to the resorts of Konigswinter and Wernigerode. The following year they repeated the experiment, this time staying in Kreuznach - in Larkin's subsequent accounts the two trips tend to get jumbled together. The idea was that Sydney would combine some of his 'business' interests with a few days' sight-seeing, but as far as Philip was concerned the whole process soon became a kind of torture. The main reason, he always insisted later, was that he couldn't speak the language (he didn't begin learning German at school until 1938). 'I found it petrifying,' he said, 'not being able to speak to anyone or read anything . . . My father liked the jolly singing in beer cellars, three-four time to accordion - schiffer klavier, did they call them? Think of that for someone who was just buying their first Count Basie records.' Kingsley Amis remembers a similar story that Larkin told him in Oxford: 'In Germany, with his father, they put him in the front of the bus they were travelling on, next to the driver, who asked a question which Philip thought meant, 'Have you been to Germany before?' 'No,' he said, and the driver didn't seem to like that, and didn't talk to him for the rest of the day. He found out later that what the driver had said was, 'Do you like Germany?' '

In years to come, Larkin would suggest that these two trips created the loathing of abroad for which he became notorious ('I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day'). We have to wonder how disturbed Larkin felt being in Germany during the late 1930s with someone of his father's extreme political views. He made no attempt to understand his unhappiness as a disguised or displaced sense of shame. Yet to a degree that is what it was. By the end of his second trip to Germany, 'abroad' was connected with feelings of embarrassment at best, humiliation at worst - feelings which, as the years went by, he simplified and hardened into 'hatred'.

'OXFORD terrified me' was Larkin's usual line about his time as an undergraduate. 'Public schoolboys terrified me. The dons terrified me. So did the scouts.' His novel Jill supports the claim. Its hero, John Kemp, is pale with fear as he travels down in the train from his Midlands home to begin his first term - he even eats his sandwiches in the lavatory rather than suffer the scrutiny of his fellow- passengers, and once he reaches his college he is hopelessly out of his depth.

But this image of 'fear' taking over from the 'boredom' of childhood is over-simplified. In spite of his continuing shyness, Larkin quickly established himself in St John's as an opinionated and even flamboyant personality. Within a matter of days he was holding forth in the Junior Common Room 'Suggestions Book', complaining about having to pay for college stationery and making pseudonymous attacks on people who offended him.

Part of his confidence came from his writing. In the summer before going up to St John's to read English in 1940, he methodically collected all the poems, plays, stories, novels and essays he had written, destroyed those he didn't like, and 'selected and retained a few from the best of the manuscripts'. The surviving poems he 'sewed up' into little booklets. Eventually Larkin would judge these booklets harshly ('Bollocks' he wrote in the margin of one, and in others 'more shit', 'this is a lot of cunt'). But at the time he felt more tolerant and even sent off four poems to the Listener. To his amazement, one - an Audenesque sonnet called 'Ultimatum' - was accepted by the magazine's literary editor, J R Ackerley, and eventually published on 28 November, during Larkin's first term. He couldn't have asked for a more auspicious start to his career as an undergraduate writer.

His contemporaries had only to look at him to see that he was apparently brimming with self-confidence. 'Philip often sported a bow tie and . . . green cords and a waistcoat,' one remembers. 'With his large glasses, his high forehead and attractive low stutter, he was unmistakable, the sort of person who was not only witty in himself but the cause of wit in other men.' Others recall his thick black hair flopping forward, the slouch-brimmed hat he sometimes wore, his ostentatious pipe- smoking, and the cerise trousers he boasted were the only pair of such a colour in Oxford.

Such gaudiness was not all it seemed. No matter how bravely Larkin sailed into his new world, he soon lost his nerve when called upon to be decisive, or to deal with those he reckoned his social superiors. The opposite sex was even more daunting. Hitherto he had almost never come into contact with girls. During his first term he tried to avoid women altogether. When he arrived at St John's before term began and before enrolling at the Bodleian Library (where his name followed 'Iris Murdoch, Somerville College' in the register), his instinct was to seek out former schoolfriends and stick to them.

The Oxford he experienced was much reduced by war. Several college buildings had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Food: it was, literally and metaphorically, a life on rations. Larkin's course of studies was a far cry from the one which exists in Oxford today - it was strongly biased towards philology, and ended with the writers of the 1820s. The only bright spots of the week, he told Sydney and Eva, were Edmund Blunden on the Lake poets and Lord David Cecil on the Romantics. Other lecturers got short shrift, among them Tolkien, Neville Coghill, C S Lewis and Charles Williams. According to Kingsley Amis, who joined Larkin at St John's in the spring of 1941, Larkin 'didn't go to lectures much'. He took up squash. He went to the theatre and cinema a great deal. He listened to jazz. The highest compliment he ever received from his tutor Gavin Bone, he reported, was 'Mr Larkin can see a point if it is explained to him.'

Then, suddenly and violently, his life was thrown into confusion. On 14 November 1940, at seven in the evening, the German Luftwaffe bombed Coventry, dropping 500 tons of high explosive, killing 554 people and seriously injuring 1,000 others. Large parts of the city were obliterated. The cathedral in which Larkin had been christened was left in ruins. It was Hitler's first blitz on an English city - something that Sydney had imagined might happen and which his family had always feared.

When Larkin heard the news on the wireless in St John's he immediately turned to Noel Hughes, wondering what to do. Nothing, they decided: wait until word came from their families. But after two days, when no news had arrived, they decided to go and see for themselves, hitchhiking home in a little over two hours. The Larkin house in Manor Road was intact, but when they knocked at the door there was no reply. Larkin grew more frightened than ever, and for 20 minutes he and Hughes tramped the nearby streets, hoping to meet someone they knew, who would tell them what had happened.

Eventually, Hughes found a cousin, who told him that his parents had left the area until the emergency had passed. Larkin, however, found no one he knew, and when the time came for them to catch their lift back to Oxford he glumly concluded that Sydney and Eva must be safely sheltering somewhere. But where? 'For at least the seven years that I had known him,' Hughes wrote later, 'Philip lived at the same house, but at only one other house had he felt able to call for news of his missing parents. That done, he had shot his bolt . . . Later, as I got to know, and to know more about Philip's father . . . I could imagine how Philip could have lived for years in a neighbourhood and yet be reared in almost total isolation from it.'

When Larkin returned to St John's that evening he found a telegram from his father, one he was so pleased to receive that he never stopped to ask why it had taken such a long time to reach him. The family was safe, it said - Eva had gone to stay temporarily with Sydney's brother Alfred in Lichfield, Sydney himself, who had been in City Hall during the raid, would be staying with his deputy. But Larkin had been badly frightened, and the devastation continued to haunt him for many years - helping, for instance, to shape his poem 'A Stone Church Damaged by a Bomb', written three years later.

IN HIS third term at Oxford, Larkin attended a course of lectures given by John Layard, a slightly cranky figure whose expositions of human psychology and Lawrentian theories of the unconscious none the less had a great influence on Larkin. 'Layard wound up the term's course with a damn fine talk,' he told his friend Jim Sutton. '(He said that) the greatest revolution of our time - greater than Communism, Fascism, psychology, this war - is the fundamental change in the social position of women . . . The solution as he saw it was that women should be the priestesses of the unconscious and help men regain all the vision they have lost.'

When Larkin first arrived at Oxford he had become sharply aware that his ignorance of girls was remarkable. As time passed, this started to weigh on him more heavily, especially after he began to play an active role in the English Club. According to his close friend Philip Brown: 'Most of the officers of the Club were girls, and they used to lionise Philip a bit, asking him to tea and so on. It was hard to say why, since he wasn't writing very much or very well, but he was charismatic, you see. Girls wanted to find out about him.' Larkin, in turn, now wanted to find out about girls, but felt incapable. His shyness quickly turned into the sneering he had learnt from his father. 'Women (university) repel me inconceivably,' he told Sutton. 'They are shits.' Ever since Amis had started to keep him company, things had been both better and worse - worse because compared to his new friend he felt ugly, inept and woefully inexperienced; better because, for all his savvy, Amis conceded that everybody had difficulties with girls at some time or other. Now Layard made things even more complicated. If women really were the 'priestesses of the unconscious', as Layard said, Larkin thought they might endlessly enrich his work. How could he fulfil himself - as an artist, if not as a man - without them?

He summoned up his courage, and tried to get to know some of the girls who flattered him in the English Club, or met him in lectures. Every encounter was a disaster. Margaret Flannery, for instance, 'edged towards him but made him giggle'. Hilary Allen of St Hilda's upset him by beating him at table tennis. Another girl, when he took her a bunch of flowers, alarmed him so much merely by opening the door to his knock that he was literally unable to speak to her; he thrust the flowers into her arms and fled. A fourth, when he tried to kiss her in a punt, told him: 'I'd sooner not, thanks.' Later, in his third year, came Chitra Rudingerova, the Czech member of the Labour Club, who he found 'decidedly attractive' but who 'was known to interrupt kisses to say 'Remember the Party comes first' '. In a drunken fit of bravado Larkin asked her to tea: 'We ate toast and marmalade, and she told me I was decadent. Nothing else happened.' After this string of defeats Larkin retired hurt, sheltering behind the antagonism which had protected him in the past. 'Cunt and bugger Oxford women,' he wrote to Sutton, quoting approvingly a part of Lawrence's Fantasia of the Unconscious that Layard had ignored: 'the thought of actual sex connection is usually repulsive'.

In the years ahead, Larkin's hostility to women would sometimes soften but never entirely disappear. Layard had stirred up feelings which were to become a stock-in-trade: a mixture of excitement and fear, of bewilderment and the wish to dominate, of dependence and reaction. None of this would have startled Sydney, but because Larkin had the model of his family so clearly before him, he was determined not to repeat what he reckoned were his father's mistakes. The last appeal, he promised himself, would always be to the self. 'I don't,' he told Amis, 'I don't want to take a girl out and spend circa pounds 5 when I can toss off in five minutes, free, and have the rest of the evening to myself.'

If Larkin found girls so difficult, was it partly because he was really attracted to men? At school, by his own subsequent admission, he had 'fallen in love' with a number of his contemporaries, and at Oxford he broadcast his admiration for Julian Hall's novel The Senior Commoner, which deals with its Etonian hero's 'not very romantic' feelings for a junior boy called Murray Gawthorne. At Oxford, too, he had dressed from his first term onwards in a way which most people in his college acknowledged to be 'camp'.

Dressing camply is one thing; being homosexual is another. Yet in a short story Larkin wrote between January and July 1941 a more complicated picture emerges. The story opens with three undergraduates, David, Patrick and Christopher Warner (a name he would use again in Jill), and climaxes with a drunken party in which David discovers that he's in bed with Christopher. Patrick, too, ends up with another man, and becomes haggard and incoherent with guilt:

Quite naturally he began to cry, shedding tears of absolute shame as he recalled the evening . . . With remembered phrases and fragments of landscape he tortured his shrinking responsible intelligence till his sensibility writhed like a boiling surface, exploding in gouts of remorse. Horror, horror. He hid his face in the darkness, feeling unworthy of warmth, of parent, sun, scenery, or friend: of his earlier self which in crude colours stood rose-lipped shadowing him like an illusion at noontide. He was foul. Foul. Foul.

The revulsion, the isolation, the reference to parents, the violation of what he calls elsewhere in the story the 'glades of self', the implied desecration of childhood - all these are themes Larkin would take up and develop in his novel Jill. They also appear in another uncompleted story of the time, written slightly later and preserved among his unpublished papers. Both these stories, unsatisfactory in literary terms, have important things to say about Larkin's developing sexuality. Arising from the years 1941-2, they indicate that the sexual loneliness of his first year gave way during his second to a homosexual crush which was acknowledged but almost immediately repressed, then pored over with fascination and horror. Because Larkin eventually buried or denied most of the details, it's now difficult to reconstruct the episode accurately.

One witness, however, does survive. Larkin's contemporary Philip Brown, with whom he was to start sharing digs early in his second year, admits that 'Philip may have been in love with me'. Brown, a medical student, was an energetic yet fastidious young man, with an 'attractive but not conventionally pretty, crushed-up sort of face'. 'I liked Philip,' he says now, 'but I certainly wasn't in love with him - I was very keen on a medical girl student, as it happens. But there were a few messy encounters between us, yes. Nothing much. Philip's sexuality was so obscured by his manner of approach and his general diffidence that frankly I would be surprised to hear that he ever had sex with anyone.'

'Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life' by Andrew Motion is published by Faber on 5 April at pounds 20. Next week's extract: Larkin in love

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