Friday, January 08, 2021

'Nothing, Like Something, Happens Anywhere'

“'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'” 

Now it’s customary among parents and teachers to congratulate Junior for earning a gentleman’s “D” and for not robbing the convenience store. Every accomplishment must be acknowledged: “You did your best, and that’s all that counts.” I can’t speak for you, but I rarely do my best. For most of life I rely on cruise control, tooling along at a safe and inoffensive clip. My precious self-esteem has nothing to do with it.


The line quoted at the top concludes “I Remember, I Remember,” completed by Philip Larkin on this date, January 8, in 1954, and collected the following year in The Less Deceived. The train his speaker is riding stops at Coventry, Larkin’s birthplace in 1922. He has the common experience of not recognizing once-familiar surroundings. A companion asks the expected cliché: is this “where you ‘have your roots’?” He replies: “No, only where my childhood was unspent, / I wanted to retort, just where I started.” Ever contrary, Larkin won’t indulge the Romantic fabulations of childhood, systematically dismissing their hackneyed allure:


“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.”


Larkin takes his title from Thomas Hood’s poem, brushing aside its sentimental rendering of childhood. He parodies erotic mush: “ where she / Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist,’” and early poetic triumphs: “my doggerel / Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read / By a distinguished cousin of the mayor.” All is set-up for the closing lines:


“’You look as though 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.’”


No, few childhoods match the myths, though it’s probably prudent not to tell the kids. We respect them enough not to lie.

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