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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 May 2019

Walking towards the Stour Valley, Malcolm Guite recalls prophecies of Larkin

THE other week, Maggie and I took the chance of an untrammelled day together and made a leisurely progress down the Stour Valley, exploring the lovely string of little towns and villages from Clare, through Cavendish to Melton, and then across to Lavenham.

As we took pleasure in the pargetting patterned on the plaster walls of country cottages, in the timbered frames of medieval weavers’ houses and guildhalls, in the old pubs, the village greens, the light airy churches, their feathery fan tracery and lucid Gothic arches reaching up beneath the blue April skies, I found myself recalling that listing litany in Larkin’s poem “Going, Going”:

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs. . .

Of course, as his title suggests, Larkin’s tone is elegiac, even despairing: he felt that it was all going, all being pulled down and “bricked in”, that it wouldn’t outlast the poet himself. Yet here we were, 35 years after Larkin’s death, and, while many beautiful things may still be “going, going”, thank God many are not yet gone.

Although “the guildhalls and the carved choirs” have survived longer than Larkin expected, he was a more accurate prophet when it came to nature. Famously in that poem, a piece of “eco-writing” before its time, he begins to doubt the resilience of nature in the face of our onslaught, no longer trusting that

. . . earth will always respond
However we mess it about. . .
The tides will be clean beyond.
— But what do I feel now? Doubt?

We came home from the Stour Valley to the news of wildfires in the record-breaking Easter heat, and of the climate-change protests, presented on the bulletin as though they were separate items. Again, some lines of Larkin’s poem came to me:

It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast. . .
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last. . .

Yet something I learnt that day in the guildhall in Lavenham gave me hope. Curiously enough, what preserved such a wonderful cluster of medieval buildings for the admiration and pleasure of a later age, was not foresight but failure.

The guildhall was built as a crowning glory with the wealth generated by the wool trade, and especially the weaving and dyeing that had made “Lavenham Blue” famous throughout Europe; but then technology changed, new styles came in, and the people of Lavenham were soon too poor to pull down and remodel their buildings as the fashions changed, as brick and tiles came in and timber and thatch were dismissed as crude country cousins. They were too poor, even, to cover their timbered houses with fashionable façades; so they had to make do and mend, to keep patching up what they had. But then the time came when people remembered the old ways, and the old buildings, and delighted in them again, and Lavenham’s shame became its splendour.

I wondered whether we who have failed in foresight might also be saved by failure; whether the faltering of our heavier industries, the changes in fashion and demand, might return us, too, to older ways; whether that willingness to make do and mend, which was once the badge of poverty, might soon be celebrated rather than despised, and the old ways might be as much sought after as the old timber houses, “the guildhalls and carved choirs”, which are the glory of England.

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