Up to a point, Mr Larkin

I’ve had an affection for Philip Larkin’s poetry since school days. As a rule it’s short, accessible, and to the point; all qualities I value in poetry. That it’s generally somewhat cynical and perverse is just an added bonus. As someone who studied English at university, I probably ought to be more moved by epic verse. More appreciative of Milton, Spenser, Shelley and the like. But tough, I’m not. The closer a poem is to a well crafted song lyric, the better, quite frankly. Would that Steve Turner were more prolific.

Anyway, I digress. Amongst the various Larkin poems I treasure is This Be The Verse (may be NSFW if your employer is particularly sensitive). I may not share the sentiment of the last line – after all, surely one of life’s key pleasures is messing up the next generation – but the rest of it has always seemed pretty much on the money. Pop psychology 101 it may be, but not without truth for all that. Up to a point …

And the up to a point is quite important. A genuine up to a point, not “up to a point, Lord Copper” but up to a point nonetheless.

My first revelation of this was from my mother’s concerted effort not to do the same number on me that her parents perpetrated on her. Unfortunately I can’t credit her with 100% success, but it was far from total failure either. If nothing else it made me sufficiently self-aware to know most of my foibles and acknowledge them. If I have to.

More recently this whole circle-of-life thing with parental behaviour patterns was brought to mind during a brief exchange between Mrs Snags and myself. The details are (thankfully) unimportant; the gist is that there was an unexpected clash of expectation and mood that led to me biting back the words “You know, it’s true, you really do marry them like your mother” and then going on to add something particularly unfair and hurtful (to both Mrs Snags and my mother if she ever found out). One of those rare occasions when  my brain got ahead of my mouth, thankfully, and the words died in my throat.

The reason that they died in my throat was multi-faceted. Partly it was because just occasionally I twig that putting in the boot of passive-aggressive self-justification may not be helpful. Mostly it was because ultimately I didn’t want a fight, and if I pulled back first then I could maintain a smug self-righteous martyrdom for the rest of the evening (see, I am self-aware). But there was also an element of recognising this as a scene played out between my folks on more than one occasion. Not violent, not distressing, just average marital bickering. But hauntingly familiar, with me about to utter words which, in memory at least, had fallen verbatim from my father’s lips on more than one occasion.

Along with the recognition came the nagging realisation that whilst, basically, I was in the right and totally justified (obviously) Mrs Snags did, kind of, maybe, just a little, have a point. Not as much of a point as she thought she had, of course, but you know, the outer edge of possible rightness in her stance, even if her reaction was totally unreasonable (clearly). And that led to a reappraisal of some of those childhood (youth-hood?) moments at home. That maybe it wasn’t that mum was a no-fun kill-joy and dad was quite right to be annoyed about it. Just maybe he was unwittingly being a bit of a sod, getting on with his own thing in his own way, and perhaps not dibsing in to the domestic scene quite as much as mum would have valued.

Don’t get me wrong: I had great parents, they loved each other loads, and they loved me. I was never abused or neglected, and any household tensions were just the normal ones that come in any lifetime of living with another human being. This isn’t some big dramatic thing, some life-changing moment or defining triumph over the past. But whether your parents are brilliant, average, or utterly crap, Larkin applies. Emotional and mental tics, habits, prejudices, ways of being, reacting all get passed on. In their own special way, they do tend to fuck you up, be it a little or a lot.

So when those sickening moments come round – the “Oh mother loving hell’s teeth, I have become my mother/father/a hideous hybrid of both” moments – when those moments surface … stop. Pause. Take a step back. You can rise above it. Maybe Fleetwood Mac couldn’t break the chain, but you can. And when you do, take a moment to re-adjust the scales you weigh your parents in. You might find you need to tip them a little mental apology, and a bit more understanding. Or you might not. Either way, the conditioning isn’t unbreakable – the good news is we don’t need their fucked-upness.  We can all find ways to fuck ourselves up without outside help. Never forget it, it’s a real release. It’s worth the effort of a bit of introspection to spot the patterns, understand them, and step outside. It’s so much more satisfying when you realise you’re screwing things up in your own special way, not just the way you’ve been taught.

Right, now to go antagonize Mrs Snags some more …