For a poet whose work was done in the mid-to-late twentieth century, Philip Larkin has an impressive record when it comes to lines quoted randomly by those who would not normally express an interest in poetry, let alone giving any indication they even know who Larkin was. The two poems that contain the most quotable of his uniquely English observations were published within three years of each other in the early 70s – ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and ‘This Be the Verse’. The former opens with the memorably melancholy reflection on changing 60s mores – ‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)/between the end of the Chatterley ban/and the Beatles’ first LP’. The latter begins with perhaps the most instantly familiar lines in modern British verse – ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’.
That bombshell says something that had long been felt without anyone having to guts to say it out loud before the Coventry-born poet-cum-Hull librarian committed the unspoken sentiment to paper. Though he goes on to recognise parents inherit their faults from their own parents, his conclusion is to avoid siring offspring in order to break the cycle of hereditary failings. Larkin views parenthood almost as an infectious virus handed down the generations, one whose only cure is contraception. The poem appeared at a time when ‘traditional family values’ were undergoing shock therapy, despite a pop culture counterattack seeking to reinforce the benefits of post-nuclear harmony via The Partridge Family and The Osmonds. However, it was no coincidence Charles Manson’s murderous mob was known as ‘The Family’, the most extremely subversive twist on the concept.
A solid family unit should, in theory, provide the best foundation upon which to build the life ahead, but how many can honestly say they were lucky enough to receive such a launch-pad? Social history seems to suggest that the solid family unit is considerably rarer than the dysfunctional model. Absentee fathers have been outed as the source of juvenile delinquency in recent years, though the same guilty parties were held up as being responsible for the teenage crime-wave in the immediate years following the Second World War, as accurately portrayed in the Ealing classic, ‘The Blue Lamp’; even if these fathers were absent due to overseas conflict, it still shows this problem has been around a lot longer than most acknowledge.
Even families in which parents haven’t divorced and remarried, where homes are not officially broken, merely suffering from superficial surface damage, the family joined by blood retains an inherently flawed design. Oedipus and Elektra complexes abound, with fathers jealous of the younger man who takes their little girl away from them and possessive mothers for whom no young woman is good enough when it comes to their darling boy. This psychological incest is ultimately as damaging as any physical abuse when the children eventually get round to producing their own brood. And on it goes.
Vicarious ambition is another factor in fucking up the next generation, as displayed by those parents whose original aims were thwarted by either circumstance or minimal talent and see a second shot at glory in the heir. Mothers determined their daughters will become ballerinas, fathers determined their sons will play for England, children whose own personalities are suppressed by the shadows of their parents’ failure to achieve feats they themselves have no compulsion to succeed in. Because the child lacks the drive that the parent attempts to drill into them with such totalitarian selfishness, they will one day assert an independence the parent perceives as betrayal.
And surely the sham that is the solid family unit is never better exposed than on two specific occasions – Christmas and the funeral. The latter was never better fictionalised than in the ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode in which one of old Albert’s brothers dies and the vultures swarm around the chattels he left behind, each claiming moral ownership of the deceased’s possessions and effectively of the deceased too. Anyone who has witnessed the unedifying banquet of avarice that accompanies a family funeral will recognise the signs. As for the season of good will to all men, that it is often the only time in the twelve month calendar that the various family members gather under one roof speaks volumes. How many approach such unwanted reunions bereft of dread and a deep desire to get it over with as quickly as possible?
Parents and siblings appear to imagine blood gives them carte-blanche to treat you in ways that would end a friendship at the drop of a hat were there no blood involved, as though shared genes are justification for the most vicious, uncaring, cruel and vindictive behaviour that non-familial social intercourse would never countenance. We are expected to bite our lips and hold our tongues because, as those exemplary role models the Krays and the Mafia remind us, it’s fammerlee. What kind of insane set-up outside of organised religion preaches tolerance of personal attacks? The obligation to a collection of people with whom we have nothing in common and don’t even like is one of society’s most despicable con-tricks.
Grandparents or eccentric aunts and uncles are sometimes the saving grace within families; they express empathy with the child because they’ve been there before and have a far greater knowledge of the parent that can provide the child with valuable insight. Their laidback and less authoritarian attitude can come as a welcome respite, and parental disapproval only strengthens fondness. However, when the chips are down and someone is needed to cover your back, it sure as hell isn’t family that can be called upon – it’s friends. They are the true family; and if that word is to be reclaimed from those who imbued us with prejudices and thought processes that can take decades to extinguish, it should be bestowed upon brothers and sisters unburdened by blood.
© The Editor