The Larkin Automatic Carwash

4 Sep

Many people know and love Philip Larkin’s famous narrative poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’; but how many would recognise Gavin Ewart’s affectionate parody, ‘The Larkin Automatic Carwash’?

The Larkin Automatic Carwash

Back from the Palace of a famous king,
Italian art
Making the roped-off rooms a Culture thing,
At about five o’clock we made a start,
Six teenagers squashed in. And as I drove
North from the barley sugar chimney pots
They sang the changeable teenager songs
That fade like tapestries those craftsmen wove
But centuries more quickly. Through the knots
Of road-crossing pedestrians, through the longs

And shorts of planners’ morse, the traffic lights,
Over a hill,
Down to the garage advertising tights,
A special bargain, fast I drove on till
I drew up by the new Car Wash machine,
Pride of the forecourt, where a sign said stop
Clear on the asphalt. In front a smaller car
Stood patiently as brushes swooshed it clean,
Whirling its streaming sides and back and top –
A travelling gantry;  verticals, cross-bar.

We wound our windows up and waited there.
In pixie green
The moving monster lifted itself clear,
The yellow brushes furled and now were seen
As plastic Christmas trees. Its wet last client
Made for the highway and it was our turn.
In gear and under. Two tenpences fed in
A slot on the driver’s side.  The pliant
Great brushes whirred and closed. Like yellow fern
One blurred the windscreen.  Underwater thin

The Science Fiction light came creeping through
Alien and weird
As when the vegetables invade in Dr Who,
Something to be amused at – almost feared.
And as the lateral brushes closed our sides,
Sweeping past steadily back, the illusion came
That we were moving forward; and I checked
The hard-on handbrake, thought of switchback rides
And how the effect in childhood was the same –
Momentary fear that gathered to collect

In joy of safety. The tall half-children screamed –
The girls at least –
Delighted to be frightened, as it seemed,
By this mechanical, otherworldly beast.
The boys made usual, window-opening, jokes.
And soon, tide-turning, the brushes travelled back,
Put our imaginations in reverse,
Though we were still. Like cigarettes and cokes
This was their slight excitement, took up slack
In time that wound by, idle. Nothing worse

And nothing better. To me it seemed so short,
I wanted more,
I wanted hours, I wanted to be caught
In that dense undergrowth by that wet shore.
This was an exit from our boring life,
A changed environment, another place,
A hideout from the searchers. Otherness
Was that world’s commonplace, a kitchen knife,
Something so usual that it had no face –
As the car dripped unnatural cleanliness.

Yes, it was jolly, Fun for the kids we say,
But more than that;
For if you look at it another way
This was a notable peak where all is flat.
Into the main road by the riverside
We right-turned past the pubs that line the route
Where cheering crowds watch boat race crews go by,
Travelling with the full incoming tide.
The roof, the sides, the bonnet and the boot
Shone with new wetness. Yet the dust could lie

As thick there as before; and would in time,
This was reprieve.
Cars too grow old and dirty. Gin-and-lime
Perks up the guest; but all guests have to leave.
In through the main gate of the block of flats
I drove my giggling adolescent load,
And in vibrating door – slammed solitude
I parked. Under their different hats
Spiritual experiences work in a kind of code.
Did I have one?  I, from this multitude?

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