In 1971, Philip Larkin was commissioned to write a prologue to a UK government report, How Do You Want To Live? This was one of the UK's papers submitted to the iconic 1972 UN Stockholm conference. Larkin was always going to be a risky choice for such a venture, and it's a matter of record that the great and good in government did not wholly like what he wrote – too near the truth, some thought, to be published in full. Indeed, the commissioning committee was so discomforted that they cut bits out of the poem, something which Larkin went along with.
Here it is, in its great and gloomy – but not yet quite prescient – original version. Larkin published this in his collection High Windows:
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.
Clever stuff, where every comma is made to count. Required reading, I'd have thought, in all ESD 101 courses. I was reminded of all this by Ian Hislop's recent BBC2 series on the "olden days" – his thesis being that we English are not just obsessed with looking to the past, but actually see it as some sort of guide for the future. All very witty and rather sly.