“You can look out of your life like a train,” wrote Philip Larkin, who was born in this day in 1922, “and see what you’re heading for, but you can’t stop the train.”
In the week in which he turned forty, Larkin was shocked by the death of Marilyn Monroe – and, for him, unusually sympathetic. “I’m sure Hollywood is a ghastly place to work in for anyone like her, everyone wanting to screw you and get a cut for doing it, nobody really helping you,” he wrote to Monica Jones. He also had the pleasure of reading for the first time, and sharing with Monica, the HOW OLD CARY GRANT? telegram joke – it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when it wasn’t hoary.
Staying with his mother in Loughborough did not do anything for his mood:
I can’t say I feel on top of the world here – Mother’s friends all seem to have just died, or had a stroke, or a fall, or been widowed, or be having “deep ray” treatment, or in the mental hospital – no reason why they shouldn’t, in the driving rain of time that will bring us all down in the end. A few more years shall roll. Still – it is a sad atmosphere – don’t know what I should do if it weren’t for The Archers …
A few days later, and now past his fortieth birthday, he is writing to Monica again:
… I seem to have very little time here. It’s all eating or washing up ‑ I must say that after a week of it I begin to feel for my father in his retirement [Sydney Larkin, Coventry’s city treasurer, was an enthusiastic Nazi who visited the Nuremberg rallies twice and only took down the swastika in his office in 1939] – it is a dreadful life. I remember him holding up some implement or other at the sink and saying “That’s the third time today I’ve washed this!” And it was, and I expect I’ve washed it three times a day myself, 15 years later. I wondered what he would have thought, to see me washing the same old colander, the same old saucepans, the same old cooking knives and forks – laughed, I should think. You may say there’s nothing very awful about all this – but all the same I think there is – I feel it as awful, anyway.
Home is a sad, place anyway … I feel I’ve done nothing with that fat fillet-steak part of life, 20 to 40, and now it’s gone. And I haven’t done anything with it because I’m too spiritless and cowardly and talentless. People have a lifetime a year compared with me.
Decades of course are no more clear dividers of the stages of our lives than centuries are of history. Just as many historians like to think of a nineteenth century which did not end until 1914 so also our lives may not best be measured by the twenties, the thirties, the forties etc. For many people that “fat fillet-steak part of life” may not begin as early as twenty but at the point, usually a few years later, when we are first able to fly the nets of home and earn an income for ourselves which allows for a little independence (or indeed folly). And for many it will end, or at least be suspended, with the arrival of children. I have never had any time for people who make a fuss about being thirty (“omygod”). Forty now, I can see that. With fifty you’ll probably have too many other things on your mind to much notice and by the time sixty arrives you’ll have been to the funerals of some of your friends. Soon, thoughts may turn not to decades, but to weeks, and days. Letters to Monica is published by Faber and Faber at £12.99. Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems is published by Faber and Faber at £13.99.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us.
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.