Earth Day Celebration – a line or two from Philip Larkin

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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:

Going, going

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.


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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