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Philip Larkin, Part II: We Need the Toad

Does anything gnaw at the guts of Americans today as much as the fear of unemployment? And not just temporary unemployment, but more or less permanent, life-crippling, un- or under-employment? The fear of being JOBLESS AND STAYING THAT WAY as per a recent headline in the New York Times?

In yesterday’s PJM I wrote about the English poet Philip Larkin, who died 25 years ago this year. One of the things he wrote about best was the subject of jobs: Poems that are realistic, hard-nosed assessments of the necessity of work and the throat-tightening fear of not having it, of losing it forever, of falling through the cracks and disappearing — a living death, with the victim (as Larkin envisioned it) usually ending up in a cheap, rented room staring through a window at meaningless clouds. We’ve all seen people like that.

In his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens (a huge admirer of Larkin) recalls how, when he was young, he and his pals suffered from what they called “tramp dread.” Literally, the panic of never becoming anything, of succeeding at nothing, and turning into what Americans now call “homeless people” and used to call “bums.”

Perhaps there is something universal in this, as I suffered from the same worry at the same age, though there was no rational reason for it. “Tramp dread” is the fear (as Larkin wrote in his great poem, “Toads Revisited”) of:

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,
Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets –
All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.

“Stupid or weak”: It sounds cruel, but even if you’re not foraging in garbage cans, even if you’re dressed in a suit and going eye to eye with drones in Personnel three times a day, that’s exactly how extended unemployment will make you feel.

Most of us won’t become homeless, of course. Most of us, many of us, will continue to work. We’ll continue to marry, hold jobs (or part-time jobs), and raise children we both love and resent. In “Self’s the Man,” Larkin examined the phenomenon of the married working man from his childless bachelor’s perch.  He knew that just because we need jobs it doesn’t mean we like them:

Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,
And the money he gets from wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire,
And when he finishes supper
Planning to have a read at the evening paper
He has no time at all…

That was published in 1958. It’s still funny. It’s still true. It’s the stuff of a thousand sitcoms. Having a job, unless you’re making a fortune or are lucky enough to love your work, inevitably leads to dreams of escape, along with a profound sense of resentment that vast portions of your life are being swallowed up in giant, daily gulps. As he put it in “Toads:”

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?
Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

The cold-blooded toad, one of the more hideous though common amphibians to be seen outside of a reptile house (in the fairy tale, the toad or frog is the antithesis of Prince Charming), was Larkin’s preferred symbol for the old 9-5. Yet he acknowledged what is inescapable for most of us: That “something sufficiently toad-like / Squats in me, too.” The toad is within and without; only gypsies, rebels, drop-outs, lunatics, professional free-loaders and those who don’t need the money (“The shit in his shuttered chateau”) can get along without it.

“Walking around in the park / Should feel better than work,” he posited, but he knew that it didn’t, or at least not for long. We need the toad, even if it devours our life and hastens us first to retirement and then the grave:

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

If mortality was Larkin’s indelible subject, work and the fear of its loss was another. To mark the 25th anniversary of his death, along with readings, performances, discussions, etc., it is toads — or to be exact, 40 giant, luridly decorated fiberglass sculptures of toads which Hull’s city elders have decided to scatter around Larkin’s home town in homage to one of its few celebrated modern natives. (His nearest rival is Mick Ronson, ex-guitarist for David Bowie.) Several of the toads were immediately vandalized, leading to the prompt creation of a task force of “Trained Larkin Toads Conservation Officers” along with a hot line to rat out the toad-bashers. (You can’t make this stuff up, although, as wily government bureaucrats know, you can create more jobs out of it — at least for yourselves.) First to get hit was the “Punk Toad,” aka “Punkphibian,” which had its crimson Mohican ripped off its skull. Soon afterward, an “Astronaut Toad” also got whacked.

Bizarre as the whole matter is, and as easy to ridicule, it’s perhaps appropriate that in a time of high and often permanent unemployment the toads of Larkin’s poems (the real-life creature is described in Wikipedia as being “characterized by dry, leathery skin, brown coloration, and wart-like parotoid glands”) have been appropriated by Hull’s city council as bright, cheery symbols of the joys of actually having a job. The British economy isn’t too sprightly, either: Unemployment in Hull was over 13% last year,  and five years ago it was voted the worst place to live in England. When Larkin wrote his poems, people could still more or less rely on lifetime employment. His “loaf-haired secretary” worked for him for thirty years. What are the chances today?

For anyone over 35, one of the more irritating phenomena of the moment is people who lecture you on the fact that we have just passed through “a golden age of abundance” and that if you didn’t make enough money then, you’re certainly screwed now. About this we’re supposed to feel guilty: We didn’t get in on the derivatives-hedge-fund-Bernie-made-off-with-the-cash-voodoo, or if we did we got out too late, and it’s no one’s fault but our own.

By 1973, Larkin was not immune to expressing slight feelings of guilt on this score:

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
“Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex –
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”
So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life.

Clearly. And despite all the shiny techno-jewelry with which we deck ourselves out — the iPhones and iPads and iPods and ear buds and BlackBerries and Twitter accounts and all the rest of it — many of the old mechanisms for making a living are breaking down. On one side we have life — our life; on the other (somewhere) there’s supposed to be money, or a way of making it. But where? And for how long?

Despite all his talk of the “toad-work,” Larkin’s job as head librarian at the University of Hull did not figure in his poetry. All he left us on that score is this tart little work-day gem, “Administration”:

Day by day your estimation clocks up
Who deserves a smile and who a frown,
And girls you have to tell to pull their socks up,
Are those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.

Yet even in his most desolate poem about impending death, the ironically titled “Aubade” (“a song or poem appropriate to or greeting of the dawn,” as the dictionary has it), after scaring us senseless with the verbal equivalent of a blast of chemotherapy, he concludes:

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

On the face of it, the “Larkin25” celebrations and festivities are extraordinary. W.H. Auden is generally considered the greatest English-born poet of the 20th century, and along with Hardy, Yeats, and others, was a major influence on the young Larkin. Yet when the centenary of Auden’s birth fell in 2007, the reaction in Britain was accurately described in the Guardian as “muted.” People could barely rouse themselves to raise a champagne glass. In America (he became a U.S. citizen in 1946), the date was barely noticed, despite the fact that his poem “September 1, 1939,” according to an article published in the New York Times two months after 9/11, “was endlessly quoted and reprinted to express grief over what had happened and foreboding about what was to come.”

Where’s the love? Auden might have wondered. The answer is it seems to have been transferred to Larkin, an anti-social bard who resonates in the age of Facebook. He is a poet of terrifying clarity, as well as a writer who believed in decency, love, humor, and passing beauty. But he did not believe in much of a future, personal, national, or otherwise. That surely says something about Britain — and perhaps about the state of the West in general.