Gary Day

August 8, 2003

'At four my daughter was the perfect surrealist... To this day, the cat still has bits of wax in its fur from where she tried to use it to polish the floor'

"Every columnist has to do a travel story." Are you kidding me? Have you tried catching a train recently? Can you even remember what one looks like? My last memory of a train was one I pushed round the living room carpet. No, travel stories are fine if you can actually get going but, if you're growing old on a platform somewhere in England, there's not much to say apart from: "I think I'll just go and have another cup of tea." You know what happens next: as you're handing over your change the train arrives, leaving you to run across the bridge, scalding liquid splashing onto your hands, all to no avail as the 8.09 finally pulls out at 10.32.

The only exciting thing that happened to me on a journey was being marched off a bus at gunpoint. But that was in another country. I suppose there was that encounter in the toilets at Leicester station. Look, I know how that sounds but hear me out. I opened the door and there were four people, two men and two women, in suits with clipboards right in the middle of the gents. I was - how shall I put it - quite keen to use the facilities but this little group showed no sign of ending their conversation. I didn't like to interrupt but there comes a time in every man's life when he's gotta do what he's gotta do. "Excuse me, will you be long?" Notice I played it cool and didn't ask what two women were doing there. "No, why?" asked the blonde in the beige suit. It was the beginning of a surreal day.

André Breton adapted Lautréamont's definition of beauty - "the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella" - for surrealism. He aimed for "a total revolution of the object", removing it from its normal position and changing its use. At age four my daughter was the perfect surrealist, as the cat, if it could talk, would testify. To this day, it still has bits of wax in its fur from where she tried to use it to polish the floor. Compared with that, using my best pair of shoes as Barbie's bath was, well, kid's stuff.

My most recent surreal experience occurred while reading Andrew Motion's superb biography of Philip Larkin. I discovered that one of my old tutors at Essex, Arthur Terry, had been one of Larkin's close drinking companions in Belfast. So there we are, a man I haven't thought about for 20 years suddenly proves to have been a friend of my favourite poet. In life, you occasionally catch a connection - something I never do with trains.

Anyway, Motion's tome got me thinking about why I like Larkin. I never met the bloke but I know he was racist and reactionary because everyone, except those who knew him, say so. A master of the demotic, he was certainly no democrat. On the other hand his straightforward style has a radical pedigree. The desire to share knowledge was part of the impulse behind the development of the vernacular in the late 14th century as it was in the aftermath of the civil war some 150 years later, with Thomas Sprat calling for the language to be purged of "amplifications, digressions and swellings of style". The plain style was, and indeed is, the hallmark of progressive politics. Except in Larkin's case of course.

Here we run into one of those enduring problems of art. Can we approve of a writer if we disagree with his politics? Yes, because they're not the same thing. And anyway, a person's politics are never clear cut. The conservative Larkin was largely responsible for the Labour archive at Hull University.

The nature of art is more elusive. For Jorge Luis Borges it was "the imminence of a revelation that does not take place", while for Paul Valéry it was "a hesitation between sound and sense". Larkin's poetry too quivers with a vision it can't quite disclose, suspended between the bleakness of a rented room and the splendours of a glimpsed transcendence.

Perhaps art is neither one thing nor the other, just a bridge between contrary states, an unexpected meeting of opposites. I don't know, but the important thing is to keep talking about it, especially in these times when the assumptions governing education are so hostile to art.

Larkin was a great writer because he made conversational English a resource for poetry and because... what was it now? Oh yes, he could even make train travel seem like a blessing. That's one reason why The Whitsun Weddings is one of the best poems of the 20th century. I know we're not supposed to make value judgements. But we do. All the time. Golly, an English lecturer has to have some perks.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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