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The Beautiful Librarians by Sean O’Brien review – a bleak and comic lament for lost England

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A curmudgeonly portrait of British cultural life echoes Philip Larkin, WH Auden and Jim Royle

‘Poets grow older; verse turns from passion into habit: but only the first condition is inevitable.” When Sean O’Brien penned this statement a decade ago, he surely did so with a quiet commitment not to fall foul of it.

Whatever criticisms might be levelled at his oeuvre – a Collected Poems, published in 2012, is a brick-sized tome charting 40 years – a lack of passion isn’t one of them. His early collections are packed with urban pastorals and scenes of social realism, but also have a satirical spikiness, tackling history, class and politics. The hypocrisies of the powers-that-be – Tory governments in particular – come in for some hard-hitting flak. But so, too, do poet and audience, as our potential complicity is smartly scrutinised.

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