Monday 4 October 2010

Going down the long slide

The Daily Telegraph in England has been serialising the letters of the poet Philip Larkin to Monica Jones, his muse, confidante, sounding-board and occasional lover, often the more deceived! It’s a fascinating insight into the creative process of this quintessentially English poet, the voice of the time, at once pessimistic and perceptive, always with a wonderful undercurrent of delightful irony.

His is the voice of an England in transition, unsure of itself, unsure exactly where it belongs. Yes, there is cynicism, sometimes even the echo of a grumpy old man of letters, but there is also much wry amusement, mischievous observations on the times and the transitions. Take Annus Mirabilis by way of example, a poem that always makes me smile;

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.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

He manages to be simple, funny and profound all at the same time, rather like John Betjeman, another poet and observer of English life that I hugely admire. Larkin, though, as a discovery was rather late for me (a poet divine in 2009!) It was the 2009 poetry season screened on BBC 2 that really opened me up to the melancholic beauty of his work, to one poem in particular which simply overwhelmed me, something I’ll come on to in a moment. Prior to this I really only knew him from This be the verse, a poem I memorised in my teens to recite to the other girls at school (I was overheard by the games mistress!), more for its shock value than anything else;

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Some do, of that I have not the least doubt; mine didn’t! Yes, there is pessimism here, and he does have a point, but it’s also jolly good fun. There are so many other poems by this most admirable, most English, of post war bards that I love and admire, poems I have read since watching the BBC series. But the one that was introduced to me then for the first time, the one that has remained in my head and my heart is the evocative High Windows. This is my poem, the poem that speaks to me, of present contentment and possible future regrets, of passing time, one that brings an awareness that youth truly is the stuff that will not endure;

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives--
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.


  1. The letters are indeed a fascinating look at this odd man. I can appreciate why others like his poetry, but for me it did less than nothing. The finest English poets to write in the 20th century were, Houseman, Eliot and Powell.

  2. Oh, and Peter Sinfield, another of my favourite 20th century English poets. Vastly more beautiful than Larkin.

  3. The Daily Telegraph is also read in Scotland, Wales and Ulster.

  4. I'm sure it is, Adam, but I only read it in England!

  5. As do I--typically whilst drinking an English ale.

  6. Don't worry about lost youth, Ana. We don't live long enough to grow old - unless we are born that way.

  7. Like me! You know, Calvin, I have a somewhat fatalist vision, that I really won't live to grow old.

  8. Some parents do their best,others should not have children. Some times little think they know it all brats are the problem.

  9. I was a little too young to enjoy sexual intercourse in 1963 - only by half a decade or so!
    Looking back, the sixties do appear to have been times of optimism and relative contentment. We had a good schooling system - which successive governments have done their best to dismantle in the name of 'equality' (some animals will always be more equal than others, however!) The 'class' structure was reasonably well defined, but there was plenty of upwards mobility through the school system. Working -class lads (and lasses!) could move up through the grammar schools and take their place at Oxbridge with the sons and daughters of lords and be proud of their achievements. Now we look to dumb-down the education system so that almost everyone can get 10 GCSE's and four A-levels. I do some part-time lecturing at a university, and the standard of students coming on to the courses is appalling. Everyone expects to get a degree 'as of right' because they have paid their fees, and there is enormous pressure on the lecturers to 'maintain pass rates'. The overseas students are particularly problematic. Although in theory they are supposed to be able to speak a reasonable standard of English, many struggle to put a sentence together, consequently, although many of them are undoubtedly as clever (or more clever) than the British students, they cannot achieve a satisfactory standard. The drive to attract these foreign (specifically non-EU) students is of course nothing to do with the uncapped fees they are charged!
    The level of crime also seems to be significantly higher than it was in the sixties. Again I feel that the wooly-minded 'liberals' who favoured comprehensive education have much to answer for. Prisons now are more akin to hotels. Friends who have to work in the service tell us of many 'old lags' who say they have a much better life in prison than out. I strongly favour both capital and corporal punishment as part of the justice system, and a significantly tougher regime in the prisons. Educate the prisoners to give them a better chance of a job but also make them work hard while they are inside and give them sentences to fit their crimes - particularly the young scum who wander the streets terrorising people.
    I know this sounds a bit reactionary :) but I do strongly feel that the long slide since the sixties has been built on the deterioration of the education and policing/justice systems. I cannot see this weak ineffectual government currently in power changing this.

  10. Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...
    Tim, thanks. You don't sound at all reactionary; you sound just like father. :-) I have a piece I wrote after the A level results were published. It's on another, multi-author site I used to belong to. I'll have a look at it and see if it's worth posting here. If it is I'll put it up later today.

  11. You will have a long and productive life Ana.

  12. Hmph - probably the same age as your father!! :)
    I'm sure that your earlier musings will be as interesting and erudite as your other writings on here - I have greatly enjoyed reading your blog. Beauty and intellect combined -your father must be very proud of you :) Keep up the good work!

  13. Tim, and to you. :-) I'm just about to add the education blog.

  14. Here is a recording of Larkin (one of my own favourite poets) reading High Windows:

    There are far too many of his poems that I love to mention here - Have you read 'Going, going'? There are too many I am thinking of. I'm unsure whether I posted the brilliant evocative segment from Laura Barton of The Guardian who recently penned her own brilliant novel (which I read, I rarely read fiction any more) on 'The Whitsun Weddings'

    Andrew Motion recently spoke brilliantly (as he does) on Larkin and his poetry. I love the anecdote about meeting him for the first time and Larkin choking and Andrew not knowing how to react, what to do. You can watch the talk here:

  15. Yes, Rehan, I have. Did you read Ted Hughes' newly published poem in the New Statesman this week? I intend to write something about this.

  16. You so should. I haven't been in the right mood as yet to read it. I'm like that. I have it, maybe I'll read it tonight. I'll forward you an email I received about it from one of his close friends.