Larkin was born in city of Coventry, West Midlands, England, the only son and younger child of Sydney Larkin (1884–1948), city treasurer of Coventry, who came from Lichfield, and his wife, Eva Emily Day (1886–1977), of Epping. From 1930 to 1940 he was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry, and in October 1940, in the midst of the Second World War, went up to St John's College, Oxford, to read English language and literature. Having been rejected for military service because of his poor eyesight, he was able, unlike many of his contemporaries, to follow the traditional full-length degree course, taking a first-class degree in 1943. Whilst at Oxford he met Kingsley Amis, who would become a lifelong friend and frequent correspondent. Shortly after graduating he was appointed municipal librarian at Wellington, Shropshire. In 1946, he became assistant librarian at University College, Leicester and in 1955 sub-librarian at Queen's University, Belfast. In March 1955, Larkin was appointed librarian at the University of Hull, a position he retained until his death.
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