Tuesday 26 November 2019

'A warming to us all'

On this date in 1981, Philip Larkin wrote one of his last published poems (it was printed in The Observer a month later). In it, he wittily mourns his own waning facility and generously celebrates the continuing, indeed unquenchable, poetic vigour of his friend Gavin Ewart.

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

Ewart had a most unusual career, beginning as a wunderkind in the Thirties, then falling silent during the war years (when he served in North Africa and Italy) and for some while after, finding his poetic voice again in the Sixties, then becoming ever more prolific as he went on. I remember reading him in the Seventies and Eighties and finding his work entertaining, engaging, sometimes more, but often giving the impression of a profligate talent, writing too much and throwing away too little. He had a rare sense of humour and an easy mastery of every poetical form he tackled, which no doubt encouraged him to write too much – and, when he wrote about sex, as he very often did, he could be quite jaw-droppingly filthy: one of his later collections was banned by W.H. Smith, back in the days when they could still be called booksellers. Today Ewart, who died in the same week as Kingsley Amis (another friend and admirer), seems destined to be all but forgotten before long. Nothing of his is in print, except perhaps in anthologies, and his Penultimate Poems is available for 1p on Amazon – or was until I snapped it up just now.
Here is one of Ewart's that I found in Wendy Cope's excellent anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. A kind of free-verse almost-sonnet, it's a happy poem indeed, one of quiet gratitude, for summers, bracken, children, for having survived...

June 1966

Lying flat in the bracken of Richmond Park
while the legs and voices of my children pass
seeking, seeking: I remember how on the
13th of June of that simmering 1940
I was conscripted into the East Surreys,
and, more than a quarter of a century
ago, when France had fallen,
we practised concealment in this very bracken.
The burnt stalks pricked through my denims.
Hitler is now one of the antiques of History,
I lurk like a monster in my hiding place.
He didn't get me. If there were a God
it would be only polite to thank him.


  1. Penultimate Poems was my introduction to Ewart. Highly entertaining.Puts me in mind of Rabbie Burns especially the more scurrilous ones.

  2. Great – I look forward to that.