Many lines of poetry have lodged in my head. They change nothing, make nothing happen, but they please me by making me feel I'm not alone. And the poet who knocked up more of such lines than any other is Philip Larkin.
Now I can readily understand that some people might not enjoy Larkin - Trobriand Islanders for example or Ethiopian camel traders or the snorkelling pygmies of Dombraska - but anyone else, anyone who's lived in the quiet suburbs of a western democracy, which means pretty well everyone who's reading this, would have to have the soul of a ping-pong bat not to relish the truth of Larkin's poetry.
(The ping-pong bat image arises, I now realise, from late last night when I turned on the television in search of a little mild amusement to accompany a last glass of shiraz - an anaesthetic, if you will, to join the anaesthetic - and I came across ping pong. I'm not joking. There was ping pong on television and unseen commentators being earnest about it. There's nothing wrong with ping pong, of course. It is gentle fun to play. But being earnest about it, and watching other people play it on television, well, what very strange creatures we are.)
But anyway, my skull is host to dozens of lines from Larkin. Some are the grand observations - only one ship is seeking us… fulfilment's desolate attic… their beauty has thickened - but others are trivial, at least at first glance, like the one that popped up yesterday.
I had taken the dog for a paddle - he does not like to swim, but he loves to stand and soak - and was driving back in the heat past a recreation ground and there was a cricket match. If cricket is going on in this world, all is not lost.
Now it is a curious truth that passing a game of cricket induces a desire to see action - a ball bowled, a run scored (and no, before you get clever, watching other people play cricket is in no way similar to watching other people play ping pong, for reasons so obvious that I won't insult you by pointing them out). Cricket, however, is famously slow. Most of the time nothing happens. And sure enough as I drove past it was the end of an over.
I slowed down. Traffic built up behind me. Somebody hooted. I would have waved the cars past but the road was narrow and there was oncoming traffic. I accelerated slightly, keeping my eye on the game. The bowler had the ball. He reached his mark, turned and ran in towards the wicket and… a tree came between me and the game and then a bank and then I was past and that was that. Except for Larkin.
In his poem The Whitsun Weddings Larkin describes a train journey. The heart of the poem is the series of newly-married couples who board the train at the various stations, unaware of each other, all of them setting out on married life. Larkin compares the trainful of newly-weds to 'an arrow shower, sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.'
But Larkin also observes the world from the train window and it is here, in the incidental detail, that comes the line that stuck. An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, And someone running up to bowl. The italics are mine, but the experience is everybody's.
(Larkin's dead these 30-something years but his words aren't, so long as somebody remembers them. It's a form of immortality, I suppose, though, as Larkin would have been the first to observe, a fat lot of good that does him.)
The running-up-to-bowl line works because it is visual, simple and true to experience. But it also ramifies. It goes beyond itself.
For here is our experience of missing out. We, all of us, sense that there is somewhere where it's at (whatever it may be) a decisive place where deeds are done and the truth is fought over. And we want to be part of it. We want to see stumps shattered and sixes struck. But somehow that place seems always to be around the corner, just out of reach. All we ever glimpse of the cricket game of the eternal verities, is someone running up to bowl. And in its absence we are left to lead peripheral lives, where no great feats are done or hundreds made, and where we only wave the feeble ping-pong bat of indecision.