These papers provide invaluable background information about Philip Larkin's relationships with his wider family (mother, father, sister and niece) from the early years at home right up to his death in 1985.
There are two substantial series within this collection, the first being the diaries of Sydney Larkin, Philip's father. As well as covering family holidays these manuscript books provide a detailed record of the war years using a variety of newspaper reports. This sequence has as much value as a personal history of the Second World War as it does as a record of the young poet's early years.
The second substantial series is the correspondence between Philip Larkin and his parents U DLN/6 and U DLN/7. There are letters from Philip Larkin to his father and/or mother until his father's death in 1948 and from then onwards, letters to his mother until her death in 1977. Letters from Eva Larkin to Philip date from 1956 to 1966. This material is currently not available for consultation until it has been catalogued.
The travel diaries in this collection record in meticulous detail holidays taken by Sydney Larkin with and without his wife Eva and/or daughter Kitty and/or son Philip between the years 1927 and 1943. The family spent most of their British holidays in the fashionable seaside resorts of Devon and Cornwall. They made one trip north to Cayton Bay (near Scarborough) in 1933 and in other years visited the Isle of Wight and Jersey. During the worst war years (1942 and 1943) they went to Church Stretton, Shropshire, not far from Birmingham.
In Coventry, as in most of the country, the last week in July was 'holiday week' for the majority of workers who could then add on the August Bank Holiday (first Monday in August). A sign of Sydney Larkin's social status was that he never took his family on holiday in Britain during this period, instead he consistently took time off at the end of August. Additionally, he frequently went away for more than twelve days. Paid holidays were not an automatic right at this time, and many people could not afford to budget for more than a week. In 1936 the TUC recommended to a government committee debating holiday pay that the length of paid holiday should be twelve days. In 1932 and 1933 the Larkin family had 21 days' holiday. Getting away to the sea with its bracing air and open skies was a fashionable and enviable thing to do. Sending postcards as the Larkins frequently did had real meaning for those left behind in the dreary industrial cities (U DLN/1/31, 2/2 and 3/2).
In holidaying at Lyme Regis, Bigbury on Sea and Sidmouth, Sydney Larkin was a very typical County Treasurer as is shown by the fact that he met up with several colleagues on vacation. He also took his family to a NALGO (National and Local Government Officers Association) camp centre at Cayton Bay in August 1933. NALGO was one of two large trade unions of white collar public employees which pioneered trade union holiday camps (The history of the holiday camp can be found in Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy's book Goodnight Campers! .) Cayton Bay (near Scarborough) was opened in July 1933. Thus the Larkins were among the first families to use these new, modern facilities. They stayed three weeks at £2 5s a week each (1/2 price for children under 12), a substantial financial outlay at a time when the average weekly wage was £3. It is therefore apt that these diaries show a prudent man constantly keeping accounts of the money spent by his family, and very alert to his place on the social scale in relation to his fellow holiday makers. Throughout his travels he kept a running commentary on the failings of his companions, even doodling satiric sketches of them or defacing photographs (U DLN/1/1 and 1/6).
A repetitive 'holiday pattern' emerges from Sydney Larkin's diaries. The family journeyed to their chosen destination by train, and then spent their days swimming, reading, shopping, walking, and making occasional trips to the cinema or theatre. Philip Larkin is part of these ritual activities in all the family's British vacations and so it is perhaps no surprise that train journeys, the sea and tennis-playing women are formally recognised and respected in his poetry.
For Sydney Larkin holidays were the opportunity to wear the slightly outlandish and daring. 'A red shirt' he wrote 'should do some good in rousing the inmates of the Hotel out of their fearful conventionality' (U DLN/1/8). They were also the site of romance. Sydney Larkin first met Eva Larkin whilst on holiday in Rhyl. Once married, he encouraged his son to romanticise women. One early morning Sydney and Philip 'both feast our eyes on the beautiful girls' (milkmaids) (U DLN/1/1). On another occasion Sydney gazed at 'a vision in turquoise blue' (U DLN/1/1). At the same time older women were satirised mercilessly. A Mrs Strickland for 'having a repulsive face' (U DLN/1/1) and several Dutch women on a tour of Germany for nagging their husbands.
Sydney Larkin was getting thoroughly depressed by family holidays as early as 1932. They were impossible to enjoy, 'with four people all afraid to do what they would really like to for fear of upsetting the others' (U DLN/1/1). Although never directly critical of his wife and children, the repetitiveness of the phrase 'Philip was ill' reveals Sydney Larkin's sense of tedium at childish ailments. That he was very conscious of being part of a family unit is also underlined by the fact that he referred to his wife as Mamma until 1943. Only after the children had left did he use her name, Eva.
In stark contrast the diaries covering Sydney Larkin's German holidays were written with far more enjoyment. The same activities, bathing, walking, dancing and cinema going are recorded after the holiday had taken place. Sydney and Eva Larkin travelled the Rhine, Mosel and Larne rivers, holidayed in South Germany near Freiburg, Wernigerode near Hannover and the Swiss resort of Schonau. Several of the trips are recorded by small black and white photographs. In 1936 and 1937 Sydney Larkin took Philip Larkin to the haunts which he and Eva had enjoyed so much. The visit is a disappointment and Philip's illnesses an evident irritant. There are no photographs recording this visit.
Later in 1939 father and son returned from a holiday in Jersey to embark on a cycling tour (U DLN/1/8). Samples of the poetry which Philip Larkin wrote on this tour can be seen in the Larkin estate collection [U DPL(2)].
The war put a stop to Sydney Larkin's long holidays, and between 3 September 1939 and 8 May 1945 he maintained his own commentary on the war. During the war Sydney was an important member of the National Savings Committee set up to encourage people to think about their financial status after the war. When he received the OBE in 1941 many of the letters of congratulation from fellow treasurers implied that it was partly this work which got him the award (U DLN/1/33). The twenty war diaries are closed to researchers.
The high point of Sydney Larkin's career came when he was elected President of the Institute of Municipal Treasurers and Accountants in 1936. It is likely that it was this position which brought with it a more public role and hence the need for a notebook of anecdotes and jokes (U DLN/1/30). His high status also allowed him to attend the International Congress of Accounting in Berlin 1938/1939 with Eva Larkin (U DLN/2/1). By the time Sydney Larkin died in 1948 he was well respected for his straight dealing and well liked for his sense of humour (U DLN/2/4).
In contrast with her husband who was a prolific writer, we have no evidence of Eva Larkin's prose except a few brief postcards (U DLN/2/2). We learn about her moods and illnesses from Sydney, Philip and Catherine Larkin. A number of photographs provide a record of the places where she grew up (U DLN/5/1 and 5/8a) and her growth from young woman to senior citizen (U DLN/4/1-3).
The extensive correspondence between Philip and Eva Larkin provides rich source material for a study of their relationship and its influence on Larkin's life and writing.
Catherine (Kitty) Larkin
In his biography of Philip Larkin Andrew Motion points out that Catherine was ten years older than her brother Philip and suggests that this was too great a gap for them to become close. However, the letters and postcards from Philip Larkin to Catherine Larkin (U DLN/3/2) display intimacy and they shared a lot of private jokes. Philip also respected her opinion, sending her copies of the poems he had published at Oxford and soliciting her opinions on them. It was also Catherine Larkin whom he telegrammed to inform the family that 'Apparently I have got a First' (U DLN/3/3). Whilst at Oxford Philip Larkin wrote frequently, telling her about Oxford including his theories about psychology and education. The correspondence between Catherine Larkin and Philip Larkin picked up again substantially when Eva Larkin became ill and moved into the Berrystead Nursing Home in Syston, Leicester (U DLN/3/8). Again there was a sense of mutual understanding, this time about their mother's needs and expectations. On the day Rosemary Hewett got married for example, Philip Larkin made sure that he paid a long visit to Eva Larkin after attending the wedding with Monica Jones.
Finally, we have the letters and cards from 'Uncle Philip' to Rosemary Parry nee Hewett. As Rosemary's godfather Philip Larkin often felt it his duty to write a serious letter. He even took it upon himself to explain why people turned to God and religion, on the occasion of her confirmation (U DLN/3/5). To Rosemary, Philip Larkin was just 'Uncle Philip' like her other uncle, her father's brother Ivor. Philip Larkin observed all their birthdays with variable regularity, apologising profusely when he was late sending a card (U DLN/3/1).
This collection enables us to take the study and analysis of Philip Larkin's early years further by bringing his relationships with his father, mother and sister into sharper focus. It is clear that his father was a very strong character who ran a very tight family unit. Sydney Larkin has the same eye for hypocrisy and ideological dogmatism that his son was to display in his poetry. We may even wish to go further and suggest that Sydney Larkin's interest in methodical record was an important model for a poet who paid such close attention to form and the grammatical niceties of language as well as for a son who was to become a University Librarian.
This introduction is based on information kindly provided by Rosemary Parry in letters dated 3 February and 25 March 1996. It is supplemented by Andrew Motion's biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life (London, 1993).