“It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,
That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts—
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,”
Philip Larkin, 1972
This poem is 50 years old, what did he get right?
I read a letter in the paper saying how this poem was still as relevant, so, intrigued, I sought an online copy to read. It surprises me that the poem has provoked quite a thought journey. It shouldn’t though as this poem covers a lot of ground, making choosing an excerpt difficult, so I went for the portion that resonated most strongly for me.
There have been many references about patriotism in the media over the past few years. Mainly, these have felt alien to me because they are often placed in the context of ‘Empire’ or ‘Colonialism’, both long past their sell-by-date and neither feel of any direct relevance to me. If the patriotism hasn’t been about those, then it’s been about sovereignity and that is equally alien because for the general public, the monarch maybe sovereign but sovereignity resides in parlement and is imposed upon the subjects; for most of us, personal sovereignity barely extends beyond whether to choose brussels for Christmas lunch. But this poem reads about patriotism to me; it conveys a love for this country with an anger and outrage for what is still being trashed by the ‘crooks and tarts’ who defile our country, and the wider world, for greed. I interpret ‘tarts’ in the sense of prostitutes because the countryside has certainly been prostituted but the debasement inflicted can be equally interpreted as ‘merely’ immoral; which interpretation to select probably depends upon your level of anger or dismay, though both and any other definitions simultaneously are also fine if they feel appropriate.
It is fascinating that Larkin identified the semi-protected status of tourist areas. He could see these areas were under threat in the future, but not specific forms of attack. He didn’t forsee minimum wage jobs and Airbnb, or how these areas are hollowed out and largely deprived, with locals priced out of home ownership and rentals by the rentiers inflating property values for ‘location, location, location’ to prostitute property for the benefit of the affluent effluence servicing the transient whims of the entitled, cosplaying the enobled.
His biography says he died in 1985, so though this was written before her government and flogging the utilities, he witnessed Thatcher’s government and the progress of this slippery pole. He was spared from witnessing that there is no real middle class now; there are the very wealthy indeed and the class that thinks it is middle class, has the middle class values but is only 4 meals away from anarchy and will be middle class only until the very wealthy have worked out what snake oil to sell them to relieve them from the problems of spending their income – this week is energy but you could substitute almost anything, next week could be food, for many of these households. And all the others are judged by their ‘betters’ as the undeserving class. This poem suggests, very strongly, that he would find today absolutely horrifying.
Patriotism, as promoted by the right wing press, seems to be far nearer to a sort of Dickensian Victorianism, of workhouses, brutality, unjust and hypocritical morality, inequality, all the -isms, controlling and judgmental, superiority of wealth deserved by accidents of birth and poverty for the undeserving based on the outcome of poor lifestyle choices. Except those ‘choices’ were actually undeserved circumstances. Colonialism and Empire certainly fit in that era. I just wandered off pondering that last sentance for about an hour, not even one pleasant association arose, leaving only questions concerning the reason for promoting patriotic nostaglia for a blessedly long gone world. Except there are some who want to cling on to this idea of this self perceived superiority. Some who seem very intent in dragging the 21st century back to the 19th.
But the thing that is most interesting/horrifying/intriguing, is to read and compare his word painting of 1972 with the world, near and far, around us today. Allow plenty of time because it is a large landscape he presents to you, extolling the beauties of our country – actually countries of the union – whilst lamenting the vandalism being wrought upon them. Could that be a true patriotism? Seeking to protect and preserve the glorious beauties of our natural world against greed and vandalism?
I recall ‘Plant a Tree in 73’, the Blue Peter project. I think that the public seemed more innocent, more trusting then. Most average, decent people expect that, largely, we are all pretty average and decent and operate to a broadly similar average and decent standard – I suppose that makes us gullible fools to the unscruplulous. Attitudes changed after Thatcher’s ‘greed is good’ propaganda; common decency was eroded by selfishness.
Interesting contextual, constructionist analysis at the link below. I don’t know when it was written but I would prefer an additional comparison of the farming practises of the time before the assumptions implied in the article; it was a very different world then and I recall there were environmental regulations being introduced, it was before GM crops, just before Roundup, heck it was before home computing and Test Tube babies (look it up if you don’t know), UK was about to join the Common Market, there was a lot happening.