Friday, February 6, 2009

"Nothing, Like Something, Happens Anywhere"

Among the survivors of the Coventry blitz on November 14, 1940 were the city treasurer, Sydney Larkin, and his wife Eva. Two days before the air raid, Mr. Larkin received a letter from his son, Philip, who had just matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford. Young Larkin was running low on cash. The future librarian was spending it all on books.

Years later, Philip Larkin—sitting in a train bound for somewhere else—pulled into the Coventry train station—
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 if 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.'
Today—I saw it there myself, setting out by train from Coventry for a holiday in the Lake District—the first stanza of Larkin's poem, inscribed on a plaque, hangs from one of the concrete pillars in the Coventry train station.

The Coventry that Larkin knew as a child was destroyed almost as soon as he left. What remains is a sense, not of loss, but of nothingness. What the poem commemorates about Larkin's childhood is what didn't happen. Nothing happened. What remains is the poem: an odd little chronicle of non-events that happened—or, rather, didn't happen—in a place that no longer exists.

The poem reminds me, in more ways than one, of a genuinely nostalgic poem about a brief stop during a train journey. The poem was written in 1914, on the eve of World War I, by Edward Thomas, an English poet who would die in that war—

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontendly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas's lovely and tender little poem, like Larkin's cynical one, is touched with a sense of absence: "No one left and no one came."

My niece and nephew in the Adlestop bus shelter, January 2007. Between them is Edward Thomas's poem.

The train station in Adlestrop, in the Cotswolds, is long gone. But, like the first stanza of Larkin's poem, Thomas's poem is inscribed on a plaque and publicly displayed: in Adlestrop's bus shelter, on a bench underneath the sign salvaged from the old station. "Adlestrop—only the name." As with Larkin's poem, Thomas's poem becomes, in a sense, the thing that isn't there.

I had this feeling often in England, that there were two Englands: a place where I walked and drank ale and bought sausages and endured ridicule for my ginger hair, and a place that for centuries had been turning into words.


Juliette said...

Just to say I really enjoyed reading about Coventry and Adlestrop - it is so often an understanding of the motivation and life of writers that engages me and gives insight that moves me towards greater discoveries! Thank you Rob

Anonymous said...

"Adlestrop" was composed in January 1915. The afternoon described was June 23rd 1914. Between inspiration and composition, WWI was declared. The poem is about the war.

Anonymous said...

Nice. I live in Coventry and can relate to that poem!

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .