Everything crowds under the low horizon:
Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse …
—Philip Larkin, “To the Sea” (1969)
The new NALGO Holiday Camp, just near Scarborough, looks as if it might fit the bill for the Larkin family’s 1933 annual trip away. NALGO stands for the National Association of Local Government Officers, and Sydney Larkin is a member. A keen diarist, he prefaces the event with an unfortunate expectation that it “will probably be cold and wet”. He adds: “No one has, so far, had a bright word to say about the holiday. We are the funniest family on earth.” The family includes a subservient and nervous wife, Eva, a twenty-one-year-old daughter, Kitty, and an eleven-year-old son, Philip.
NALGO holidaymakers, as part of their “initiation” on arrival, are given nicknames. In descending order, Sydney is Oxo, presumably a reference to the popular stock cube used in cooking; Eva is Pussy; Kitty is Godiva—the only possible connection being Coventry, the Larkin stronghold where the eleventh-century noblewoman had ridden a horse naked—and Philip goes by the moniker Snooker. Diary entries suggest Oxo does his best to encourage Pussy, Godiva and Snooker to enjoy themselves. After all there is community singing in the “beach hut”. This is strewn with fairy lamps and Chinese lanterns in the evenings. There are long and vigorous walks to be had during the day. As it happens, Pussy is unwell for much of the time and Godiva (Kitty being Kitty) rarely speaks unless spoken to; and as such, it is felt in retrospect that she was never going to be suited to the regimes of holiday camp life. Snooker enjoyed some table tennis and bathing but he did catch cold; and in future, Sydney records, he would need to remember to pack his spectacles case.
Sydney evaluates the success of the holiday as “mixed”. On the positive side, the expenditure for the holiday was “about one half the usual and was therefore much better value for money”.
The “usual” had been the popular seaside spots of Lyme Regis, Ventnor, Newquay, Falmouth and Bigbury-on-Sea. Sydney took his holidays, as he did everything else, seriously. A Lyme Regis holiday diary entry records the purchase of “smartish” shorts for himself, and a “jazz kerchief” for his wife, these being “sufficient to lend that amount of distinction to us that I like in a holiday place. Henceforth, we shall not be ciphers in Lyme Regis. We shall be known.”
The NALGO holiday as it turned out was a once-off and in the following two years Sydney and Eva would holiday as a couple.
Initially, they had met by chance, when they each sought shelter from a sudden thunderstorm. Sydney had been impressed by Eva’s persistence in continuing to read a book. An impetuous proposal of marriage took place some days later, however this had been counterbalanced by an engagement of five years while Sydney worked determinedly to better his prospects.
True to his word, he climbed the accountancy ladder and the couple married, saw the birth of a daughter, and by the time Sydney had attained the important position of Treasurer of the Coventry City Corporation, it seemed the right thing that he and Eva should try for a son. Enter Philip Arthur Larkin, named after the Renaissance poet Philip Sidney: a compromise since Sydney’s preference had been for Sydney. Eva’s brother was named Arthur.
As time marched on, Sydney became more dogmatic and self-opinionated while Eva became less bookish. She was expected to be, and was, efficient and practical in managing the home—Penvorn—at 1 Manor Drive. She offered little else. Long after his father’s death, Philip would be taken aback to hear his mother recite lines from the poems of Thomas Hardy, including the opening lines from “On the Departure Platform”:
We kissed at the barrier; and passing through
She left me, and moment by moment got
Smaller and smaller, until to my view
She was but a spot …
When quizzed she explained that the poems had been committed to memory to please Sydney.
Materially, Philip (and one assumes Kitty, although she is rarely mentioned) wanted for little. He had the obligatory Hornby train sets (though, he lamented, unlike his friends he had to pack them up after each use) and collections of football and cricket cigarette cards. A school friend would relate many years later, and after Philip Larkin had become famous as a poet, that the Larkin house had an “intimidating tidiness” and that conversation within it was always hushed. As a youth, and having developed a fondness for jazz, he is not only given a subscription to the racy Chicago-based magazine Downbeat, but also a rudimentary drumkit.
The family circle might best be summarised in a cartoon Philip drew in 1939, at the age of seventeen, titled “Portrait of the Author and Family”. It features the characters Me, Pop, Mop and Sister. Me sits to the far left of a room, pen in hand, beneath a large exclamation mark, and peers with exasperation at the viewer. Pop has his back to the viewer and has been reading a newspaper. He pontificates to all and sundry:
The British Government has started this war … Hitler has done all he can for peace … well, well, I hope we get smashed to Hades … our army is useless … 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 …
To this bombast Mop responds meekly:
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 of the work … well, I hope Hitler falls on a banana skin … by the way, I only washed four shirts today …
Sister, who by now is twenty-seven and portrayed as a model of dreariness, prattles on about being too tired to attend a dance. Her position at the bottom of the pecking order seems entrenched. As it happens, Me will not serve in the war Pop refers to, due to poor eyesight, but he will prank Sister by mailing her—in an official “On His Majesty’s Service” envelope—a note informing her that she has been drafted to “the Colliery at Pwllycracrach … for light duties at ‘the shafthead’”.
But we must return to Pop and Mop’s 1934 and 1935 holidays.
Sydney’s admiration for Germany had developed over a protracted period. He had attended the Nuremberg rallies of the late 1920s and early 1930s and also the first of four accountancy conferences in 1933. He maintained correspondence from 1934 to 1937 with H.G.H. Schacht, Hitler’s Minister of Economics and the man responsible for harnessing Germany’s unsustainable post-Great War inflation. Sydney openly identified with a vigour he found lacking in the British West Midlands. His Coventry office was decorated with Nazi paraphernalia right up until Hitler’s invasion of Poland, when his colleagues politely suggested it should be removed. The mantelpiece at 1 Manor Drive displayed a small figurine of Hitler whose moveable right arm could be raised aloft and kept in place with a catch.
Philip recorded in later life that his father often referred to himself as “a conservative anarchist”. He spoke of his father as “the sort of person democracy didn’t suit”. Yet it remains that the work Sydney did for the British National Savings Committee during the war was considered important enough to warrant the award of an OBE. His particular achievement in his own mind had been having the foresight to have ordered one thousand cardboard coffins in the year before Coventry was “blitzed” in late 1940.
While we know little of what Sydney and Eva actually did on their two trips to Germany, we do have insight into the two trips that Sydney made with Philip that followed in 1936 and 1937. Educational excursions were part of the itinerary. There is a photograph of the dutiful adolescent son standing beneath a sign for Wiehler Tropfsteinhöhle, the stalactite cave discovered in 1860 after the blasting of a quarry, which now doubled as a tourist destination and a monument to the job creation measures necessary after the First World War. The cave had been effectively emptied of clay by hand: an achievement that no doubt impressed Sydney. And while they also viewed Beethoven’s piano, Philip recorded that his father’s preferred entertainments were “the jolly singing in beer cellars” and photographing young women by the seaside. The problem for Philip, who knew no German, was that during these trips, he was unable to converse with anybody other than his father. His offending a bus driver with an answer of “No”, when asked if he liked Germany (he had thought the man had asked whether he had been there before) had caused acute embarrassment and in places like Wernigerode in Saxony-Anhalt—the strange amalgam of medieval city, complete with castle, and incomprehensible Nazi poster art (“frightening notices that you felt you should understand and couldn’t”)—he was left baffled. Kafka? You bet. He would later explain that these German trips had engendered in him a complete loathing of the idea of any future travelling abroad.
For Philip, being Sydney’s travelling companion must have been a particular trial, and living with him a more general source of frustration. But his father’s death from cancer of the liver in 1948 hit hard. With the exception of the unpublished poem “An April Sunday Brings the Snow”, completed a fortnight after his father’s demise—on the same day Philip had written to his lover Monica Jones of cleaning out cupboards of preserved fruit and jams and “seventeen dozen boxes of matches”—Larkin would write no poems for almost a year. This poem reads in part:
… shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit …
Five loads—a hundred pounds or more—
More than enough for all next summer’s teas,
Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, under the cellophane,
Remains your final summer—sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.
Philip would relate that his father had died “nihilistically disillusioned” and having possessed the idea that “life had defeated him”. At the end of a long notebook entry, Philip wrote:
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. 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.
That being said, the death made clearer the realisation that the son was very like his father. In another unpublished poem, “To S.L.” (1945), he speaks of the “courage and indifference” that was necessary to fuel Sydney’s desire for self-improvement. He speaks not only of a required intellectual rigour but also the bravery in the acceptance of not socially “fitting in”.
On the occasion of the celebratory publication Philip Larkin at Sixty (1982), Philip took umbrage at the intention of author, Noel Hughes, to write an article in which Sydney was to be depicted, in Philip’s words, as a “Fascist bum-pincher and his home joyless”. And it must be said, Sydney’s influence on Philip had been immense. Philip Larkin, the sceptic poet-librarian, had been instructed by his father never to believe in God.
Sydney possessed a fine library and had encouraged his son to read voraciously and read well: Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Butler, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Christina Rossetti, D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Housman, Arnold Bennett, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender to name but few. Philip, like Sydney, would come to shut himself away most nights and write in a hand remarkably similar to his father’s and using the latter’s preferred Royal Sovereign 2B pencils.
While Philip met with acclaim as a librarian rather than an accountant, his father had looked over his shoulder. Philip kept his own monthly accounts that extended to rounds of drinks purchased and haircuts. He was known for a certain stinginess—in a letter to Monica, Philip bemoans the cost of a fifty-five-minute telephone call to his mother (₤2.5.10d). And while Sydney attended assiduously to things domestic such as not wasting the plums; in another letter to Monica—mostly about death—Philip relates how he has installed roof felt on the lean-to that protected his mother’s lawn mower.
In his first library job at the Wellington Library in Shropshire, Philip persuaded the Urban District Council to raise the municipal rate a penny in the pound for the purchase of much-needed new books: this was pure Sydney Larkin. Philip was cut from the same cloth. His perception of the material world echoed his father’s sentiments: “If you haven’t got the money for something, you can’t have it.”
Sydney’s obituary in the Journal of Local Government Financial Officers mentioned his aversion to “humbug” and “circumlocution”, and mentioned a “somewhat startling directness”. It says his approach to his work was best put into context by one of his favourite quotations, from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels:
Providence never intended to make the management of public affairs a mystery to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius of which there seldom are three born in any age.
Philip had the same feelings regarding poetry. He is arguably the twentieth century’s most accessible major poet.
The Journal of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants said, “Sydney Larkin hated mass opinion, sentimentality and pretence: verbosity, clichés, gush and over-emphasis, whether in speaking or in writing, were anathema to him …” Mention here is made of his “caustic wit”, that his only hobby was reading; and that he expressed a dislike of games and parties. The verdict: “To some—especially to the hearty back-slapping Englishman—Sydney Larkin was entirely incomprehensible.” This obituary concludes: “he will be recalled as … conscientious, fearless, but kind, generous, sensitive, and—at bottom—shy”. Reference is made to the fact that he was never once heard to raise his voice.
As an adult Philip would state that his parents’ union had “remained in my mind as something I mustn’t under any circumstances risk encountering again”. Which is not to say, he insisted, that he did not like his parents: “I did like them. But at the same time they were very awkward people and not very good at being happy.”
Philip’s relationships with women were often strained. As a child he had known no girls his own age, and he noted that as far as his sister was concerned, the head of the family had seemed to think her “little better than a mental defective who was showing regrettably few signs of marrying and clearing off”.
As for sex, as a young man he would confide in Kingsley Amis that the ordeal was “almost as much trouble as standing for parliament” and as a result, he said, “I have formed a very low opinion of women.” The idea of sex was, he said, “like asking someone else to blow your nose for you”. He seems very much his father’s son when in 1952 he castigates Monica by mail:
in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it. You are vaguely aware of this already, aren’t you? You say you “chatter like a jay”—do you remember saying that, standing on the corner … after closing time, before catching your bus?—and that you talk “tediously & unnecessarily”: I don’t say that exactly: what I do feel is that you’ve no idea of the exhausting quality of yourself in full voice …
He goes as far as to “make 3 rules”, the first two, “abandon altogether your harsh didactic voice, & use only the soft musical one”, and the third rule, “do no more than glance at your interlocutor … once or twice while speaking. You are getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener—don’t do it! It’s most trying.”
Sydney’s death at sixty-three somehow convinced Philip that he would die at the same age and from the same ailment. In 1967, complaining of being still tied to his mother, he writes: “I suppose I shall be free at sixty”—he is approaching forty-five—“three years before cancer starts. What a bloody awful sodding life.”
Some twelve years later, Miriam Gross’s first question in her interview for the Observer was: “Like most of your readers, I suppose, I’ve been struck by how much your poems are about unhappiness, loss, a sense of missing out. Do you think this is a fair impression of the way you see life?”
Philip answers, “Actually, I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through in my writing.”
And he was a natural wit. On the prospect of going to America:
Someone would say “Ashbery” [the poet John Ashbery], and I’d say, “I’d prefer strawberry”, that kind of thing. I suppose everybody has his own dream of America. A writer once said to me, “if ever you go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast: the rest is a desert full of bigots”. That’s what I think I’d like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you’re regarded as engaged, and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don’t call on the minister. A version of pastoral.
On writers doing the circuit:
I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write their poems: it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife … [somebody] I was talking to said, “they’d do that too if their agents could fix it”.
On his perception of Charlie Parker’s destruction of his beloved jazz by using the chromatic rather than the diatonic scale:
The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously … To have it all destroyed by a paranoiac drug-addict made me furious.
His report to Monica of family Christmas celebrations in 1962 is at the same time bleak and outrageously funny:
Honestly, I don’t think I did anything I wanted ALL DAY except go to the lavatory … Mother’s electric blanket broke, & I have mended it, so she may be practising suttee involuntarily before long.
The rest of the answer to Gross’s initial Observer question was as follows:
But it’s unhappiness that provokes a poem … As Montherlant says somewhere, happiness writes white. It’s very difficult writing about being happy. Very easy to write about being miserable. And I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any—after all most people are unhappy, don’t you think?
The next question elicited the oft-quoted response: “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
Eva Larkin died in 1977 at ninety-one in a nursing home outside Leicester. In her last years she had been almost completely immobile and enjoyed little other than watching the fox puppet Basil Brush on television. Philip was often by her side. Her death prompted Philip to complete the poem “Aubade”, much of which had been written three years earlier:
… Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
The poem was published in the Times Literary Supplement two days before the first Christmas he would not spend in his mother’s company. He had said much of her disparagingly—that her “ideal” was to “collapse and be taken care of”—and he had said that being in the company of his sister was like living in a “spiritual slum”. And he described his “bunch”, as he put it to Monica in a moment of complete exasperation, as: “physiologically and psychologically incapable of enjoying themselves”.
But they were still family. Their weaknesses, together with his own, propelled his poetry. For all intents and purposes, he would come to treat “Aubade” as his final poem.
In September 1984, Philip, at sixty-two, wrote to an old school friend, Colin Gunner, telling him he has planted some bulbs in his garden: “so I must think next year will come, and be here to see it. Incurable optimism.”
It is the same letter that contains his dismay at the poor performances of England’s Test cricket team:
I don’t mind England not beating West Indies, but I wish they’d look as if they were trying to beat them. Sri Lankans likewise. And as for those black scum kicking up a din on the boundary—a squad of South African police would have sorted them out to my satisfaction.
This was the sort of correspondence that raised eyebrows when it came to light in Andrew Motion’s 1993 biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. The book prompted review headlines such as the Independent’s “Mr Nice Tackles Mr Nasty”; and it prompted a widespread dismissal of Larkin’s personal character. Tom Paulin referred to “the sewer under the national monument”. Other writers such as James Booth have since attempted to hose down the fire somewhat by speaking of the times. He points out that when these comments were made, one could still buy “nigger brown” Cherry Blossom shoe polish and that the popular Robertson’s marmalade had featured a golliwog on its label until 2001. Be that as it may, Larkin was always prone to provocative phrasing in his correspondence. While working at the Wellington Library he had informed his parents: “Children I would willingly bayonet by the score!”
In any case, one suspects that Larkin may have rejoindered from the grave that in times when the very idea of national monuments seems perpetually questioned, sewers seem to be still doing quite nicely. After all, who of us in private correspondence or discussion has not written or uttered something which would turn us scarlet if it were suddenly made public? Let the truly innocent throw the biggest stones if it makes them feel better.
One hopes that the bulbs sown in autumn 1984 flowered in the spring of Philip Larkin’s sixty-third year and gave him pleasure for a time. He died in December 1985 of the cancer that he had feared so deeply—his father’s son.
Barry Gillard, who lives in Geelong, is a frequent literary contributor. He wrote on James Joyce in the January-February issue.