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Letters Home 1936-1977 by Philip Larkin, edited by James Booth – review

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The poet’s sweetly sad dispatches, mostly addressed to his mother, reek of social history, while revealing a witty, wise and grossly impractical man

Sometimes, you have to wonder about the guardians of Philip Larkin’s legacy. Deep inside James Booth’s selection of the letters the poet wrote to his family between 1936 and 1977 can be found what is surely one of the weirdest photographs ever to appear between scholarly hard covers. Comprising three pairs of tatty socks – one lilac, one salmon, one navy blue – this motley selection of hosiery, the caption informs us, was “recovered” from the poet’s house in Hull following the death of his girlfriend, Monica Jones, in 2004 (oh, that word, “recovered”: what derring-do it implies). There then follows, by way of an explanation, a line from a note Larkin sent his mother in 1943. “I darned two pairs last Tuesday with great satisfaction,” it reads. “Only not having any khaki wool I had to darn in grey.”

When it comes to Larkin, however, I begin to wonder about myself, too. The majority of these letters are addressed to the poet’s mother, Larkin having written to her every week since he left home, and at least once a day in the last five years of her life. Their subjects include constipation, draught excluders, and the engagement of Princess Anne, and on the surface of it, they could not be more banal. Does anyone really want to hear of Eva Larkin’s endless struggles with chicken carcasses and dodgy tins? (“Have you got the cheese disposed of yet?” he asks in a letter of 1 January 1955, as if cheese were a substance that demanded the wearing of special protective gear). Do we honestly care about her worries over rain clouds, of which she had a morbid fear?

For his 50th birthday, he asked his sister, Kitty, for a plastic container in which he might keep grapefruit juice

Related: Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love review – James Booth's life of the poet is wide of the mark

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