I Remember, I Remember
Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
“Why, Coventry!” I exclaimed. “I was born here.”
I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed
For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:
By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,
Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
What a different poem from the poem with the same title as that by Thomas Hood. I can’t help thinking that Larkin chose the title with Hood’s poem in mind to give an honest statement of his unhappy childhood experience. Coming up England by a different line – a very clever way of saying his lines are markedly different from the ideal country exprience exressed in Hood’s nostalgic escapist lines.
Men with number plates an intersting way of saying they owned a car – perhaps it was their pride and joy in running down the platform to make contact – or perhaps congestion was a problem in the parking area.
Well his childhood was a disappointment – where my childhood was unspent – time is equated to money and money value. And in replying to a fellow traveller makes synical comment – wasn’t spoken to by an old hat – (by adults who should have given explanation), I never ran to when I got depressed – (no emotional connection with family). Larkin concentrates on the things that didn’t happen that he thought would be common in other families.
Their Comic Ford, their farm – the other children created their own imitation reality – which to Larkin was comic and I think he was being synical by saying he could be ‘really himself”. And laments no sexual contact with the girls who were all chest, the boys all biceps. Perhap he had a different emphasis – his doggerel was not set up – like that of other children who had recognition nor read By a distinguished cousin of the mayor and given feedback that they were gifted.
And that great last line – ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ The place itself, Coventry, is not at fault.
Apart from the clever word play slant the pentameter and rhyming construct shows that Larkin put a lot of work into this expression of his childhood – ensuring that his experience will be remembered by the many who treasure Larkin as a top poet.