When the young Philip Larkin – mole-like, bespectacled, apprehensive, stammering – was a pupil at the King Henry VIII School in Coventry and living with his parents in Manor Road, he began to shape himself as a writer. The house he inhabited was, he recalled in an autobiographical fragment from the 1950s, suffused with a ‘curious tense boredom’ – a place that was ‘dull, pot-bound, and slightly mad’. His father, Sydney – ‘intensely shy, inhibited not robust, devoid of careless sensual instincts’ – kept a figurine of Hitler on the mantelpiece that, at the touch of a button, would leap into a Nazi salute; and mealtimes would routinely feature monologues from his mother – who grew to be an ‘obsessive snivelling pest’ – so ‘resentful, self-pitying, full of funk and suspicion’ that they remained in his mind as something he mustn’t ‘under any circumstances risk encountering again’. Once, he remembered, she ‘sprang up from the table announcing her intention to commit suicide’.
Such themes – gloom, futility, solitude, bitterness, resentment, deprivation – tend to be seen as wholly characteristic of Larkin’s poetry, and one can, reviewing his life and work, understand why this view pertains. ‘Please believe me’, he said to a childhood friend, ‘when I say that half my days are