By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Large Cool Store’, Philip Larkin recalled in the recording of The Whitsun Weddings he completed, was called a ‘silly poem about nighties’.
Written in June 1961 and published in The Whitsun Weddings three years later, ‘The Large Cool Store’ examines our attitudes to sex and how we separate our sex lives from everything else.
‘The Large Cool Store’, in summary, is a poem about cheap clothes shops (Marks and Spencer may have provided the model for the store in Larkin’s poem) that sell day-to-day clothes for work and home, but also have a section for nightwear, clothes which we buy and wear in order to escape the drab everyday world we inhabit and enter a world of fantasy, romance, and eroticism.
This night attire is designed to sell the idea that sex is somehow separate from everything else we do, situated on a higher, ethereal plane. Like ‘Essential Beauty’ and ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, which are Larkin poems dealing with the unreal world sold to us by advertising, ‘The Large Cool Store’ examines the quasi-tragic gap between the world as it is and the world we aspire to.
This gap between the workaday world we actually inhabit and the fantasy world of sexual and romantic fulfilment we aspire to is shown in the contrast between the colours Larkin mentions in the first stanza (where the work clothes are drab browns and greys, or perhaps maroon and navy) and the colours of the ‘Modes for Night’, which are in the brighter colours that were the fashion of the day: lemon, sapphire, moss-green, and rose.
The emphasis here is obviously on women’s night clothes, of course, and the adjectives used to describe the clothes in the poem’s final stanza are also designed to encapsulate the women themselves. ‘Synthetic’ (Bri-Nylon clothes had been mentioned earlier) suggests that men’s attitudes to women as erotic objects of desire or love are unreal and fabricated (indeed, aspirational and unrealistic depictions of women in the media, with airbrushed models who have the ‘perfect’ figure, continue to this day).
‘New’ has a suggestion of virginal purity, the idea of seeming young and fresh and, again, perfect. ‘Natureless’ suggests that such a view of women is unnatural and rejects who they really are, in order to live up to some ideal version of feminine beauty.
But it’s telling that Larkin doesn’t opt for the word ‘unnatural’, but the odder word ‘natureless’: our desires are founded on a complete denial of our own natures, and are thus artificial, ‘synthetic’, and false. This idea of falseness runs throughout many of the poems in The Whitsun Weddings, in fact.
‘The Large Cool Store’ examines and analyses our attitudes to sex and love, and the unreal aspirations both men and women share towards their sex lives. There is a class angle here too: the people who shop at the cheap cool store are working-class, as the mention of terraced houses, factories, yards, and sites makes clear. A bit of manufactured escapism at night with their lover or wife is about as good as it gets.