A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (Part 1)

JG Ballard’s experience of living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in WW2 is well known to many through the Steven Spielberg film ‘Empire of the Sun’. But to work out the true events of his childhood in Shanghai, and to separate the facts from the fiction is not easy because of the different versions—some of which overlap events with different narratives and some which tell different branches and ‘versions’ of the story.
It is not hard to get confused and even mythologise his Shanghai story because of the many versions:

‘Empire of the Sun’, the novel
‘Empire of the Sun’, the film
‘The Kindness of Women’, Ballard’s sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’ whose first chapter is set in Shanghai at the end of the war.
‘Miracles of Life’, Balllard’s autobiography.
Various interviews with Ballard – particularly a BBC documentary following him returning to Shanghai for the first time since the war in the early nineteen-nineties.

My specific interest in retracing the young Ballard’s steps started several years ago when I found by chance that an old house I had walked by hundreds of times had been the Ballard family home.

It was just starting to be renovated and turned into a restaurant. Located on Panyu Rd near Xinhua Rd it is a typically out of place but perfectly fitting architecture for that part of Shanghai—a European-style house with its triangular awnings and faux-Tudor facade that was built in the former International Settlement in Shanghai’s then far-western city limit.

When looking at a pre-1949 map of Shanghai, it’s quite easy to see familiar layouts of roads that exist today. But one glaring difference soon becomes obvious—the names of the roads. After the Communists won the civil war and the country isolated itself, all the original, colonial names of Shanghai’s roads and avenues were replaced—either with the names of Chinese cities, provinces, mountains and ‘revolutionary’ names or, in the case of a small few, transliterated into Chinese characters. So the first thing you need to track down Ballard’s childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue near Columbia Road is a pre-PRC map.

I remembered Ballard writing about the view from his bedroom window beyond the edge of the city where he could see burial mounds; today, this part of the city is considered central and is completely built up—the burial mounds long levelled and likely churned up for the foundations of tower blocks.

About 5 years ago the Ballard house was renovated again—this time completely tearing out the original fittings, window frames and even walls. Its grand garden where Ballard would have played has been cut in half with a large greenhouse-like structure which is used for weddings and other large parties.

The front of the building seems like it has always been the front, with its facade and driveway facing the modern Panyu Rd. But actually, for Ballard, the front door was on the the other side of the building—today accessible by a narrow tree-lined alley off Xinhua Rd; the original doorway is still there but completely filled in and with a wall built in front of it—it feels like a metaphor for the old Shanghai which is subtly preserved but not lived; neither destroyed but equally, not acknowledged. Incidentally, Xinhua Rd is the modern name for Amherst Avenue and means ‘New China Road’—a common road name and phrase used across the country post-1949. If you wander west along Xinhua Rd you’ll see, like in other parts of the old International Settlement and former French Concession, plaques stuck to the stuccoed walls of remaining old villas explaining the architectural styles and construction dates and occasional famous former residents of the buildings. Immediately it strikes the Ballardian that there is no such plaque outside his house, even today after it being well-known by fans that one of the 20th century’s greatest English writers had lived there as a child.

If there was no collective memory of Ballard living there then, I wondered, what about all the other places he described? Did those places remember JG Ballard?

In the next two parts I will be writing about the treasure hunt I embarked on to find the places of Ballard’s youth for myself—rom his home on Amherst Avenue to the prisoner of war camp and airport that fill most of the scenes of ‘Empire of The Sun’.


(This post was originally published in The Stele)

‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’, Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s 1928 collection, One-Way Street, is a fragmentary and seemingly disconnected assemblage of short prose pieces covering all manner of everyday things such as dreams, jokes, psychology and fashion. In one of these pieces, Benjamin gives advice to writers about technique, ritual and habit:

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

  1. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
  2. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
  3. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
  4. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
  5. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
  6. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
  7. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
  8. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
  9. Nulla dies sine linea [‘No day without a line’] —but there may well be weeks.
  10. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
  11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
  12. Stages of composition: idea—style—writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
  13. The work is the death mask of its conception.

‘The Flowers of Evil’ by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire’s most famous collection, The Flowers of Evil, is not a collection of poems in the normal sense—3 editions were published during his lifetime with new poems added with each version.

When The Flowers of Evil was first published in 1857, it was immediately condemned and Baudelaire and his publisher were (successfully) sued for releasing poems that were ‘offensive to public morals’. The collection was republished soon after minus the 6 poems that had caused the uproar.

Despite its reputation, The Flowers of Evil seems tame and traditional from a distance (or with eyes squinted)—perfectly-formed sonnets and other traditional forms are utilised as a smokescreen for Baudelaire’s themes of unrealised dreams, disillusion, sex and, most of all, ennui. The poems swerve between passion and despair—one cycle in the collection is even called ‘Spleen and Ideal’.

Baudelaire lived and walked Paris at a momentous time for the city—not only was France going through the political upheavals of the July Monarchy, the Second Republic and the formation of the Second Empire, but Paris was a city in complete regeneration; the city’s alleyways and compact buildings were bulldozed and rebuilt into the broad boulevards and grand buildings that Paris is known for today. His poems describe the squalor and transformation of the city though its industry, theatres, brothels and restaurants—Baudelaire avoids making his poems sentimental or moralising though.

In this edition, new English translations face the original French and without knowing French at all it’s possible to see, to hear the poems with their depth of rhyme and alliteration which Baudelaire mines the language for. Here’s an audio recording of a (slightly different) translation of one of the poems from The Flowers of Evil, ‘Obsession’.

‘The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence’ by Baltasar Gracián

Gracian is the Macchiavelli most have never heard of. He was a Jesuit priest in 17th century Spain, but the ‘Soldier of God’ side doesn’t come out in this work. In fact, besides the occasional quote or reference to Ignatius (the Jesuit order’s founder), the text is entirely secular in tone.

What does come across quite strongly though is his inspiration from and adherence to Stoicism. He regularly quotes and alludes to Seneca and Epictetus, and many of his aphorisms promote Stoic themes in life:

‘We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.’

So why Macchiavellian? This, his most famous book, is a collection of exactly 300 aphorisms inspired by, and meant to help navigate, the backstabbing world of 17th century Baroque Spain. His ‘tips’ were for negotiating not just the higher echelons of government (he was confessor to the viceroy of Aragon at one point) but all levels of social strata and the competition that was natural in society. Gracian’s lumping in with the spirit of Macchiavelli is due to the directness of some of his advice, particularly where he endorses the idea that the end justifies the means. Gracian also has some apparently cold opinions about friendship and the usefulness of friends.

Gracian wrote in a popular style of the period known as ‘Conceptism’, the aim of which was to be as brief, direct, intelligible and witty as possible. This gives his work a simplicity and accessibility which makes it easy on the eyes of modern readers. The short aphorisms themselves allow the reader to read one and then spend time to digest it before moving on to the next (and often, thematically unrelated) one.

The Pocket Oracle is also eminently quotable. I’ve always read with a pen and notebook to hand to scribble down any interesting sentences – some books will make me stop frequently to do this while others, though not necessarily any less profound, have no memorable sentences. With the Pocket Oracle, you can end up highlighting or re-writing the entire book – it’s chock full of witty phrases, memorable analogies and colourful metaphors.
So it wouldn’t be worth writing all of my favourite quotes from the book here – just get a copy and read it. I will quote one odd little sentence here though, which caught my eye because I’m 6’3”:

‘It’s a commonplace that a tall person is rarely wise – not so much long-legged, as long-winded.’

Thanks Baltasar…

I have two regrets about the reading of this book: first, I read it as I would read a novel; that is, several or many pages at a time. The disadvantage of this is that, as each aphorism rarely takes up even half a page, there is no time to reflect on each one without going back and spending more time on it. So if/when I come back to this book in the future I’ll read one aphorism at a time; in this sense it makes the perfect book to keep on your bedside table and read one aphorism a night.
My other regret is not having known about it when I was in my teens having only got around to it in my late-thirties. I imagine this would be the ultimate fount of knowledge for someone in their late teens or twenties, just as they’re starting to need practical wisdom to navigate adult life. In fact, that reminds me of of one aphorism in The Pocket Oracle which summarises the entire work; that is, how to live:

‘What use is knowledge, if it isn’t practical? And today, knowing how to live is true knowledge.’ 

A brief look at… ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Hopkins is the kind of poet you can really fall in love with—his style, though carefully metered, is multi-coloured, luminescent, brands the reader’s eyes and begs to be read aloud. Even 150 years later, his poems still feel fresh, innovative and modern.

Pied Beauty is his most well-known and loved poem; it’s a poem about the beauty of ‘pied’ things—that is, things of two colours or shades, light and dark, black and white.

The first line puts Hopkins’ faith front and centre: he was a Jesuit priest and many of his poems are approached from the angle of faith. The double-coloured ‘things’ that Hopkins describes are his way of celebrating difference and diversity in God’s creation.

Hopkins’ defining feature as a poet is not his ‘Christian-ness’ though , which on its own would have likely prevented his poems from withstanding the passage of time through to our secular era. Hopkins’ strength was his use of the English language in innovative ways: his signature compound nouns and adjectives that took existing, stale language and created new, evocative and emotional images.

When you look closely at the language he uses it soon becomes apparent that there is something ‘pure’ about his choice of vocabulary—there is a uniformity of language that he very purposefully selects; he avoids the Latinate and the Greek and other influences that are part and parcel of our everyday, mixed-race English, and chooses instead to use the Anglo-Saxon—the ‘Old’ English. Throw the words from Pied Beauty into an etymological dictionary and they are almost all of Old English origin.

That’s not the only Anglo-Saxon English connection—the alliterative runs that he uses are typical of Old English heroic poetry—yet Hopkins takes this style and creates something thoroughly modern.

There is poise too—Hopkins isn’t just inventing new words and playing a sort of Victorian word game—he keeps the metre tight in the Curtal Sonnet form (a variation of the sonnet that he invented himself) and the rhymes full: he perfectly begins runs of alliterative and assonant lines with sounds that morph into other sounds—perhaps as a symbol of the flux of the natural phenomena he is describing:

‘Fold, fallow and plough’, or

‘… swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;’

The poem finishes as it starts: in contrast to the fickle and transitory nature of every thing in the world, Hopkins returns to God whose ‘beauty is past change’ and his exhortation to Praise him’.

The first draft

So I have just finished writing the first draft of my first novel. It took about 41 years to get here. Okay, that’s not strictly true—I haven’t exactly been spending my entire life trying to eke out 90,000 words to call a first draft; but there have been many times and many periods throughout my life when I thought that I should write a novel.

There was the aborted attempt in my twenties when I got about four thousand words in then decided it/me just wasn’t working. That cancelled attempt is still lingering somewhere on a floppy disk as a Word 93 .doc file; I’d be quite interested in reading it if I knew anyone with a floppy disk drive…

The first attempt of my current work-in-progress was two years ago. I had to wait three months for my visa to clear before being able to work so I decided it would be the ideal time to write a novel—no excuses about being too busy, this was my golden opportunity.

I flew out of the blocks and got into a routine of writing every morning. It was new and exciting and, even though I didn’t have a firm idea about where it was going, I knew the plot would manifest itself the further I got inside it.

Then I stopped. A new job combined with a new baby and suddenly my energy levels and motivation levels collapsed and that was the end. The further away I got from my last writing session the more I realised I would never come back to it.

But about 18 months later, I read through what I had written and started to get the feeling back for it. So for the past three and half months I diligently chipped away at it, finishing just over 90,000 words a couple of days ago.

What have I learnt in my still-limited experience? A few things that I wish I had known at the start of the process actually:

  1. Write every single day, without exception. I started off by aiming to write 1000 words five days a week with two ‘rest’ days. What I found though was that after my days off it took a lot of effort to get back into it and into the mood of writing. I lost momentum and pretty quickly resolved to write, even though a fewer words, every day without fail.
  2. That initial feeling of ‘I can’t write a novel’ dissipated so quickly once I got into the flow; I’d say the 20,000-word mark was when I realised I wouldn’t be giving up and would, at least at the time of writing this, make it to the end of the first draft.
  3. Don’t worry when you get stuck on a detail. Leave a placeholder for it and keep going—those things can be worked out in subsequent drafts, not when you’re writing freely in the first draft. Just get it written.
  4. Aeon Timeline is an app for creating timelines and keeping all your characters, locations and story arcs clear. It really helped me towards the end of the first draft to make clear where everthing fit in the plot. I’m sure I’ll be using it a lot when it comes to the second draft—I just wish I’d heard about it earlier on.
  5. Plan but don’t follow it rigidly. So many times the characters took control of my story and took it in unexpected directions; and that’s alright. I am positive they haven’t finished guiding the novel yet either—there’s still a long way to go.

So I’m having a little break now for a couple of weeks and trying to put my focus onto other projects, hoping that when I come back to the novel I will be able to see it again with fresh eyes.

The next step? The dreaded first read through where (from what I’ve heard) every writer realises how far they have to go to finish their novel.

Mishima—A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a film about the life of the great Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a superstar of Japanese literature, writing many novels, plays and short stories—he even dabbled in modelling and acting. However, Mishima was a traditionalist and nationalist, who lamented and fought against the westernisation of Japanese culture—he actively called for a return to traditional Japanese values and the samurai spirit.

His masterpiece is the Proustian tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. On the very morning he finished writing the final volume, The Decay of the Angel, he went to an army barracks with members of his far right-wing militia and tried to start a coup. His speech to all the troops from the roof of the barracks was an embarrassment however; realising he was not going to get the support he needed, he barricaded himself inside the barracks and committed Seppukus—a samurai form of suicide by which the victim uses a special knife to cut into and across the abdomen.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tackles his life by interweaving scenes from 3 of his books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses (volume 2 of The Sea of Fertility) with biographical episodes from his own life. The film was never given a general release in Japan due to pressure from far-right groups who were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of Mishima, particularly as a homosexual. Most surprisingly about this film is who was behind it – it was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and its soundtrack was written by Philip Glass—yet it is an almost unheard of curiosity.


Epictetus – ‘Discourses’ and ‘Handbook’

Stoicism is in vogue – this 2000-year-old philosophy has been popularised in recent years as a kind of ‘lifehack’ – it’s an extremely seductive idea in a world where people feel like they have so little control over events both in their own lives and in the world around them, because it helps people get over their feelings of impotence – to ignore those ‘impressions’ which one has no means of influencing or changing.

When learning about Stoicism there are 3 people you need to know – Roman statesman and advisor to the Emperor Nero, Seneca; the so-called ‘Philosopher King’, Marcus Aurelius (Joaquin Phoenix’s Dad in Gladiator) and Epictetus, a former slave who taught Stoicism in Rome. All three of these wrote and spoke about Stoicism more than 300 years after the Stoic philosophy was founded at the end of the 4th century BC.
I highly recommend reading both Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Letters but this post is about Epictetus and his Discourses.

Epictetus didn’t actually write anything, and the Discourses are essentially lecture notes written up by one of his pupils, Arrian, who also helpfully summarised the 7 books of Discourses into a short book called the Enchiridion, or Handbook. Of the 7 books written for the Discourses, only 4 actually survive. Each book is split into short explanations about how to live a good life through constant reflection and the forming of good habits with chapters such as ‘What is the essence of the good?’, ‘On contentment’ and ‘That we should approach everything with circumspection’. What the Stoic philosophy boils down to is:

‘Some things are within our power, while others are not.’

This is our ‘Sphere of choice’ – a split between the internal phenomena which are within our control and external things which are not. Internal circumstances such as our feelings and opinions are well within our power to control, which means that no matter how terrible something that happens to us is, it is only our internal reactions to these events which makes them bad: external events therefore, cannot be intrinsically ‘bad’:

‘It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.’

This makes a lot of sense and has been put to great effect by people in the worst possible circumstances; a modern example is Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam for 7 years – physically and psychologically tortured, he put his survival down to putting his knowledge of Stoicsim into practice.

So, according to Stoicism, there is no point is worrying about things which are beyond our control (IE Externals) – why be distressed, anxious, frightened about something you have absolutely no control over? Epictetus and the Stoics say you shouldn’t – and that if we can train ourselves to think like that then we will live much happier lives.

Here’s an example of putting Stoicism into practice in our modern lives: You are stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get home but you are barely moving; the clock is ticking; you’re starting to get frustrated – huffing and puffing and swearing under your breath; you can feel your heart rate increasing and you’re starting to sweat. Beep the horn, punch the steering wheel – you’re extremely p!ssed off… but why? You can’t control the traffic – it is what it is and no amount of frustration will get you home sooner – in fact it may cause you to do something rash and cause an accident or even a fight. So accept it – it’s an external – you can’t control that but you can control your reaction to that. Stay calm, make the most of the time you think is being wasted by training your patience or listening to an audio version of the ‘Discourses’.

In Epictetus’ Stoicism it is not enough to read about it and to tell others about it (he frequently castigates those ‘philosophers’ he sees as talking the talk but not walking the walk) – one must put what one has learned into practice every hour of every day and act in accordance with Stoic principles – perhaps a straightforward proposition until you realise the extremes this goes to.

I think Stoicism is a wonderfully attractive method for living in the modern world but it has been the victim of cherrypicking. First of all, Stoics believe in God and Fate – everything happens for a good reason, which is not entirely palatable to a lot of people. Secondly, when considering the tenet above that one should not concern oneself with ‘Externals’, it begs the questions about what, if any, limits can be applied to this.

Epictetus though, is quite specific about this – it doesn’t matter how horrendous something is – if it’s an external then it’s an external and should not be fretted over. Here’s an excerpt from the Handbook, chapters 14 and 11:

‘If you want your children and wife and friends to live for ever, you’re a fool, because you’re wanting things that aren’t within your power to be within your power, and things that aren’t your own to be your own.’

It’s an entirely logical statement but surely a stretch for most people to be able to accept the death of their loved ones, and I doubt most people who follow Stoicism today can truly be that consistent.

So Stoicism may not be something that most people can take on entirely, but in the Discourses and Handbook we can find tips for living a ‘good’ life and for cutting down on the stress and anxiety of living in our modern society.

A brief look at… ‘Gate of Lilacs—A Verse Commentary on Proust’ by Clive James


When I got to the end of the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, I felt utterly lost. I had lived and breathed Proust’s masterpiece for almost a year and the realisation that it was over was a shock to my system—no more Baron de Charlus, Robert de Saint Loup, Madame Verdurin or Gilberte. Where could I possibly go next?

So I devoured everything Proust-related that I could find to try and keep his book alive inside me—biographies, films, documentaries, critiques. And here, a collection of poems, a commentary.

Clive James, the famous Australian poet, essayist, novelist and (in the UK) TV presenter, has brought his wit and smarts to tackling Proust. In the introduction James writes that he took the ‘long way round’ to Proust because he read it first in the original French and over the course of fifteen years learnt the language in this way. This in itself is remarkable—learning French simply (although not simple) by reading a book that is 1.3 million words long. One day I hope I can read it in the original French, but what a gigantic undertaking when you know little more than merci, pommes frites and Zinedine Zidane. 

Why poems? In his introduction, James says: ‘If I wanted to talk about his poetry beyond the basic level of talking about his language—if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought—then the best way to do it might be to write a poem.’

But these poems are a surprising departure from James’ usual strict adherence to form. There are no stanzas, each poem is one long chunk of text, reminiscent of Proust’s own thick-set paragraphs and famously long sentences. And these slabs of line atop line are in blank verse, more prose than poem.

In his notes at the end of the collection, James claims that ‘the poem is meant to explain itself.’ I can only think that is with the proviso that you have actually read Proust and will get the references; I’m sure a lot of these poems would be incomprehensible without having read Proust first, even with the explanations in the addenda, for example of relevant people like the composer Reynaldo Hahn, or the fictional artists Bergotte and Elstir. But James is well aware of this and even includes references to people (a French-speaking friend, his own daughters) who have never had the slightest impulse to read Proust: it’s not for everyone, and that’s all fine.

Sometimes it feels like we are reading James’ notes, scribbled down in the margins as he read the book over 15 years. He zips from subject to subject within single poems as though streaming his own consciousness through the lens of what he had just happened to read in the novel, taking in his own continuous present with references to Maria Callas, the Bay of Pigs, The West Wing. In You saw nothing in Hiroshima he focuses on the book’s tone and disagrees that it can be summarised or has ‘sound-bites to take away’. (Though many would certainly disagree with this conclusion—remember the Monty Python sketch?!).

The poems here, despite the exterior motive, are personal; they follow James’ life of reading Proust as much as the stories contained within In Search of Lost Time. The simple physics of reading Proust means it does take a long time, encompassing life changing events in our own lives that become anchored in the very act of reading it. In the final poem, I’ll drown my books, James writes ‘As the face of Oriane is not described / But only conjured from your memories’—In Search of Lost Time is as much a part of the reader’s life as of Proust’s himself.

Finally, to hammer home this point, the terminally ill James delivers the most poignant line of all right at the end: ‘And soon / All that I love will leave me, as I go / First into silence, then the fire, and then / The harbour water, in which there will be / At last no room to breathe, no time to think: No time to think even of you, Marcel.’

A brief look at… ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

An ‘Aubade’ is a morning song. It’s the AM equivalent of a serenade and traditionally contains the serenade’s communication of love.

Philip Larkin’s famous Aubade is anything but a serenade transplanted to dawn. This is a poem about death, and being overwhelmed by the realisation that your days are running out. Romantic it is not.

From the very first line the reader gets the impression that he’s already half given up on life with his daily ritual of work and getting ‘half-drunk at night’ to dull the senses. He wakes up at four – wide awake and with the realisation of his mortality making any further rest impossible.

Larkin continues by explaining that this isn’t a moan about regretting his life until now, nor is he jaded with the struggle of his life so far; the fear and trembling that Larkin is experiencing is purely existential – he is petrified of one day not ‘existing’ anymore.

For such a dark topic, it’s interesting how tight the metre in this poem is – Larkin doesn’t veer from his 10-line stanzas and rhyme scheme; it’s not disjointed like one might expect such a despairing poem to be. The form from stanza to stanza is predictable and unavoidable like the subject matter itself.

By the third stanza Larkin is looking for solace; Religion is useless now and logic can’t convince him that death and its ‘anaesthetic’is nothing to fear. Larkin seems like he’s wrestling with the inevitable, and the darkness of early morning amplifies his dread before the light ‘strengthens’ and another day begins. His poem seems to me to be ending with a slight note of positivity, or at least, a strategy for getting through the day – by working, by pushing forward as this is the only way we, as humans, know how – ‘Work has to be done.’But then, in the very last line, he reminds us that death is always there –  following us around – with the startling line: ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house.’

Listen to ‘Aubade’ in Philip Larkin’s own words:

Chekhov’s letter

I come back to these words again and again. From a letter Anton Chekhov sent to his brother…


MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.

2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.

3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.

5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….

6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.

8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].
And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.