Celebrating Earth Day with Philip Larkin

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Thursday April 22nd is Earth Day 2021.  50 years ago, Philip Larkin was commissioned to write a prologue to a UK government report, How Do You Want To Live?  (HMSO, 1972).  This was one of the UK's papers submitted to the landmark 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment.

Larkin was always going to be a risky choice for such a venture, and it's a matter of record that the great 'n' good in government did not wholly like what he wrote – too near the truth, they likely thought, to be published in full.  Indeed, the commissioning committee was so discomforted that they cut a verse out of the poem, something which Larkin went along with at the time.  You can see a picture of the page of the report with the prologue here on flickr.

The original text of his – great and gloomy – poem is not yet quite wholly prescient.  Larkin published a slightly revised version of this with the missing bits added back in under the title Going, Going in his collection High Windows.  You can listen to him reading it here.  No one does it better.

This was the text that HMSO published:


I thought it would last my time—  /  The sense that, beyond the town,  /  There would always be fields and farms  /  Where sports from the village 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.  /  The pylons are walking the shore,

 [– omitted verse –]

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 so 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.  The excised lines were:

[ 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)! ]

These were removed, no doubt, because of their attack on the nature of developers as a breed and on their ready access to capital – and to government.  How pertinent all this feels 50-years on.

On the upside, however, we're not quite there yet, and rumours of England's going to the dogs have been around since the 15th Century CE.


A History of Environmental Education: 21 / o4 / o7

This is the latest in a series of articles about early environmental education in the UK.  Others will appear here on a monthly basis.  You can read previous essays here:

Philip Neal

Ten Alternative Commandments

Good grief – What a title!

Tbilisi 1977

Remembering Sean Carson

Environmental education in England 1960 to 1979 – a pen picture


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