Tuesday 24 November 2015

How Distant

On this day 50 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote this poignant and evocative poem about emigration - or rather about home, the leaving of it and the making of it, the precarious human venture...

How Distant

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning.
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

And how distant it does seem, that age of emigration, when young men (and whole families) set out into the unknown, beyond the range of any but the most minimal contact with their native land or any real hope of seeing it again, facing long slow voyages to new worlds where they would have to make their own lives, or die trying. One of the things we tend to overlook about the 19th and early 20th centuries is how extraordinarily mobile people were, not only in moving from home to home (in those days before the ties of mass home ownership) but from country to country and across vast swathes of the world.
 My own grandfather was a case in point. As a young man in 1892, he embarked for Canada, 'to try his luck', with little money and no friends or contacts on the other side. He eventually got a job with the great Canadian Pacific Railway, settled in Vancouver, married and was swiftly widowed, spent two years at sea in the Far East, returned to England, then crossed the Atlantic again to work for Westinghouse, finally settling back in England and marrying my grandmother in 1906. I'm sure many other families have similar tales to tell...  

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