Thom Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, a town in Kent. His father, the son of a Scottish merchant seaman, was a journalist who became quite successful, eventually editing a newspaper, the Daily Sketch. Gunn's parents were divorced when he was 8 or 9, and he was on fairly distant terms with his father after that, but even before the divorce he was closer to his mother. His given name, Thomson, was the name of his mother's family, and he identified with that side of his heritage. "My mother was one of seven children, all girls," Gunn has written, "and all of a very independent turn of mind." One of Thom's childhood memories is of his mother "wearing an orchid pinned by a brooch in the shape of a hammer and sickle. From this distance the combination sounds like a cliche of the '30s, but it wasn't: Other women wouldn't have done something so outrageous." He also recalls being lost at the age of about 4 in Kensington Gardens (by this time, the family had moved to London), and being asked by a policeman to describe his mother. "A proud woman," the little boy answered.
When Thom was 15, his mother committed suicide; he and his younger brother found the body. For most of his writing life, he could not directly address this fact. In his one published fragment of autobiography, the tragedy takes place between sentences, as it would in an E.M. Forster novel. Then, in 1992, Gunn published a poem called "The Gas-Poker," which begins: