The importance of elsewhere, as Philip Larkin, not Bob Dylan, once said – Our Europe

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The importance of elsewhere, as Philip Larkin, not Bob Dylan, once said

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. I know one, two, no at least three, 60-something men who will be ecstatic at the news.

Me? I think David Bowie’s work is more important.

Ziggy played guitar and changed the world, and his chronicling of death in Black Star will come to be regarded as a major piece of art.

I think Bruce Springsteen has, over his 45-year career, written with far more depth, and with defiantly much more empathy for working class life than even a young Dylan could muster.

And Leonard Cohen. Well, he is a poet.

So was Philip Larkin, and I was reminded of his genius this morning by Paul Theroux in the dying pages of his last African travel book, The Last Train to Zone Verde.

When musing on the significance of travel, Theroux cited Larkin’s poem The Importance of Elsewhere.

This poem, ostensibly written about Larkin’s time in 1950s Belfast, tells, in his usual stark tone, how even as stranger in a strange city, he feels more at home in Northern Ireland than he does in England.

The importance of elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,

Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,

Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:

Once that was recognised, we were in touch.


Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint

Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,

The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went

To prove me separate, not unworkable.


Living in England has no such excuse:

These are my customs and establishments

It would be much more serious to refuse.

Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.


I embarked on this journey for many reasons.

To spend time with my husband after seven years apart.

To savour every minute of life, before old age becomes an arthritic, narrowing of the arteries, and to explore what it means to be European in this post-Brexit world we have plunged into.

And, because, as Larkin’s poem reminded me so poignantly, I no longer feel quite at home in Scotland, the land of my birth.

Larkin’s disconnection from the “customs and establishments” of England were much more about his personality than about politics, while my alienation can be traced directly to the independence debate that has torn Scotland apart.

I feel like a stranger in my own land.

I am writing this in the still-warm sun of an autumnal Greece, under an olive tree, with flies flitting across my screen and cats mewing at my feet.

Here, the strangeness makes sense. In Scotland, it does not.



2 Responses

  1. Helen

    Wonderful piece, I am at one with your sentiments, especially the Leonard Cohen reference, thanks for putting into words what so many are feeling. Hope the warmth rebirths you. ?

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