Larkin wrote this poem in 1972. How much more evocative is it today?
The title ‘Going, Going’ is the key to the whole poem. In Larkin’s view, what is ‘going’ is the landscape of England as a green and pleasant land. It is being replaced by shoddy development, summed up by the auctioneer’s excited cry of ‘going, going’ as another piece of the old heritage falls under the hammer. Going, going, but not yet quite gone. Larkin once thought it would ‘last his time’. Now he doubts that.
The poem has a disarmingly conversational tone, which belies the bleakness of what Larkin is saying. This tone is partly contrived by the rhyming pattern of each six line stanza: A B C A B C, which makes for a more open quality than couplets, for example, would have done. Right from the start he has a disillusioned air about the future of England. ‘I thought’ – past tense – ‘it would last my time’. There is a comfortable public belief, which he once shared, that traditional England will not be overwhelmed by ‘development’; there will always be an England that even ‘village louts’ – not just those with special discernment – can enjoy. Note the play on the patriotic song: ‘There’ll always be an England’. But already Larkin signals danger in the words ‘such trees’ as were not cut down. He knew there’d be alarms, but thought them false. It is important that this line ends the first stanza, as it ties in with Larkin’s half apologetic acknowledgement that he was wrong in what he thought.
The second stanza, continuing the sentence, names some of what is being lost to ‘progress’. The reader is surely getting nervous about what is happening, but Larkin ironically dismisses concern; after all, ‘we can always escape in the car’, a reference that prepares us for the impact of the car, later in the poem. Larkin then continues to outline the modern belief in development; that we aren’t doing any real damage, that things are tougher than we are. This is followed at the end of the line with another ironic usage; ‘just’ belongs with the next line, but qualifies the one it is on. Larkin has been talking about manufactured or built things, in contrast to the earth and the sea. These, it is said, will always adjust to whatever rubbish is thrown at them. But suddenly at the end of the third stanza, Larkin moves from this comfortable belief to what – doubt? Coming at the end of the line, this has added impact.
Or is it simply age? Here ‘age’ refers to his own advancing years, and also to the deterioration of things, as in the spirit of the age. Is this gloom merely a private reaction? The rest of this stanza is devoted to a sharply hostile vision of the ‘new England’ in which people want more, an adjective that Larkin uses five times in this stanza, giving an effect of dreary repetition. He clearly feels no affinity with the people who use cafes on the M1. But he equally despises those in society who promote and profit from development; ‘spectacled grins’ is a clever summary of the new businessmen and technocrats. ‘More’ is also being used to great effect here; its repetition builds a sense of urgency as more houses, pay and parking, and more profit, combine to ruin what was previously unspoilt. And escaping in the car just leads to gridlock at the beach. Here again is that conversational tone; you know what the traffic’s like. His lack of dogmatism, his air of bemusement – ‘it seems, just now, to be happening so very fast’ – give an added weight to his statement, as if after all, everyone must see that it is true.
Larkin is beginning to think that it is all up with England. I take the word ‘boiling’ to mean ‘the whole damn thing’, but would welcome other interpretations. Think of streams, diverted into concrete culverts, and paved over. He fears that what he thinks of as England will become just another theme-park for tourists. There is real bitterness in his dismissive reference to England’s leaders as ‘crooks and tarts’. The idea that ‘first slum of Europe’ is a title that might be won is a reference to the sort of game show mentality that Larkin sees demolishing traditional culture.
And then he outlines what will be lost. ‘The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs.’ In just a few words he paints a picture of what he thinks is valuable about England; I think this is a wonderful selection. He’s probably wrong about the books (and don’t forget he was a librarian); there will just be e-readers. But what there will be most of is the sort of parking lots around shopping centres that our reliance on the car demands.
Larkin isn’t really blaming anyone for this. It just happens. Weary fatalism is the over-riding mood of the poem. Greed and garbage – note the alliteration – go together; each causes the other and neither can be easily swept away. ‘Too thick-strewn to be swept’ is also highly alliterative. The rhyming of ‘greeds’ and ‘needs’ is particularly clever, as turning what people want into what they think they need is a feature of the consumer society that Larkin is bewailing. The last line gets its punch, I think, from the comma after ‘happen’, leaving ‘soon’ as the full stop.
This poem is forty years old. So much of what Larkin feared then, has happened. Nevertheless, I’m slightly uneasy about this poem. Decisions about where people live, and what their built environment looks like don’t in my view, just happen. They are a product of a set of choices made by people who control the resources of a society, with more or less input from the people who live in that society. Larkin despises both the young people in the M1 cafe, and the financial types with ‘spectacled grins’. But I don’t think they bear equal responsibility.
I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms
In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.
Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?
Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more –
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score
Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when
You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
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,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.