‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,’ Philip Larkin told The Observer in a 1979 interview. His pessimistic poetry was obsessed with the disappointments of life and the inevitability of death. Larkin could find gloom even in spring, as his famous poem The Whitsun Weddings showed. And yet his plain language and honest style captivated readers during the second half of the 20th century, turning him into one of England’s best-loved writers. Since his death in 1985, the publication of his personal letters has showed him to be, at times, a difficult, misogynistic and even racist man. But his poems express universal feelings of loss, fear and doubt to which many readers continue to relate.
If there is one theme to which Larkin returns again and again, it is mortality. Death is an inescapable presence in his work, casting a shadow over everything else and refusing to be forgotten. We must all face it eventually — so how should we respond to it while we are alive?
Beloved neuroscientist faces death head-on
Oliver Sacks has spent his life understanding neurological disorders, and as he faces death he talks of having a deeper grasp of living. Can we all experience this level of clarity?
Mouse brains could reveal secret of eternal life
Scientists have learnt to control the ageing process in mice, according to research just published. The breakthrough brings us a step closer to immortality, but is humanity ready for it?
Researchers book appointment with death
Scientists say a new blood test can determine how long a life we can expect if we die by natural causes. Do we want to be told when to expect the Grim Reaper?
Just like death, the passage of time haunts Larkin’s poetry — in fact, the two are inextricably linked together. Time cannot be stopped. And yet Larkin also finds himself preoccupied with the past, and England’s place in a post-war, post-imperial world.
‘Be great, be grateful’ says sick teenager
In a moving speech, terminally-ill Jake Bailey told his classmates to be ‘micro-ambitious’ and focus only on short-term goals. Is it time to abandon grand visions and start living for now?
Bristol divided over its slavery legacy
There have been calls for the removal of the statue of Edward Colston, a benefactor of Bristol who profited through the slave trade. Is it a disgrace or a necessary reminder of the past?
New shock therapy used to erase bad memories
Scientists have found a way to delete traumatic memories using electric shocks to the brain. Would the treatment free us from psychological scars or mean losing vital parts of who we are?
Larkin’s poetry was relentlessly gloomy — he frequently referred to life’s frustrations and failures, and the illusion of all its promises. ‘I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any,’ he once said. Was his despair inevitable?
Scientists claim humans have only four emotions
New research released this month shows that all human emotions can be reduced to just four basic facial expressions. Is our species less complex than we like to think?
Reclusive teenagers stoke fear in Japan
Parents in Japan are in a panic: thousands of young people are becoming ‘hikikomori’ – recluses who shut themselves away in their bedrooms for years at a time. Is society to blame?
Life lessons from global ‘happy’ study
Having a circle of good friends, yes, but being involved in politics? New academic research suggests there are obvious and less obvious ways to be happy. So can you choose a joyful life?
Larkin shunned the glamourous fame of the literary elite, and instead retreated to work as a librarian at universities in Leicester and Hull. The poetry he wrote and published in his spare time also drew on the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. Why is normal life so fascinating?
Down-to-earth astronaut launches into space
At 11:03am this morning, Britain’s first astronaut since 1991 took off on a six-hour journey from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station. The papers call him a hero. Are they right?
Unsuspecting teenager shoots to online fame
It was an ordinary Sunday at work for Alex Lee until a chance photo rocketed him to Twitter stardom as ‘Alex from Target’. Should we be alarmed by social media’s power to transform our lives?
YouTube ‘nerd’ reaches 1 million subscribers
A chatty 20-year-old has rocketed to fame as the first Briton to get one million YouTube followers. Are his three minute shows on everything from science to acne the future of television?
A gloomy outlook, dry wit, and nostalgia for the disintegrating traditions of the past: in his poetry Philip Larkin was English through and through. In the 1972 poem Going, Going, he fears that England’s countryside will soon disappear. How do we see England 45 years on?
Prime Minister picks Jerusalem for English anthem
England does not have its own national anthem. Today, there is talk of that changing – and David Cameron has put forward Jerusalem as his favourite for England’s official song.
England celebrates dragon-slaying patron saint
Today is the feast day of St George, patron saint of England. Parties will be held around the country to mark the occasion – but a quarter of all Britons associate St George with racism, or worse.
A bullet through the heart of England
Proposals for a high-speed rail link across England have run into trouble. Campaigners say the new tracks will ruin countryside and wreck lives. Are the benefits worth the price?