A summary of Larkin’s poem about advertising
Philip Larkin wrote ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ in 1962, and the poem was published two years later in his collection The Whitsun Weddings. One of a series of poems from that volume which treat the world of advertising and consumerism – see also ‘Essential Beauty’ and ‘The Large Cool Store’ – ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ uses the example of the holiday poster to explore and analyse our attitudes to advertising. You can read ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ here; below is our analysis of this comically dark, and darkly comic, poem.
In summary, then: Larkin considers a billboard poster which implores, ‘Come To Sunny Prestatyn’ – the Welsh seaside resort popular with holidaymakers well into the twentieth century. The poster uses the image of a beautifully and sexually alluring young woman to sell the notion of a holiday in Prestatyn to the observer: the girl in the poster seems perfect, desirable, and – more dangerous still – attainable. The reference to her thighs and breasts paints her as sexually attractive; the ‘white satin’ she wears, rhyming with the name of the holiday resort, suggests purity and perfection.
However, shortly after this poster was put up, it was defaced by vandals, who added uneven teeth and a squint to the woman’s face, exaggerated the size of her breasts, and added a crude ‘fissured crotch’ between the woman’s legs. These graffiti artists also drew in that schoolboy’s favourite doodle: a crude sketch of male genitalia. (This ‘illustrator’ has even put his name to his work: ‘Titch Thomas’ suggests he is diminutive, the ‘little man’ who is fighting the system, perhaps.) This artistic critique of the poster (if so we may call it) was then replaced by a more vigorous kind of response: first, someone had stabbed right through the woman’s smile – as if objecting to the poster’s unreal vision of human happiness – and then, finally, someone tore away the woman entirely, leaving only one of her hands and some of that perfect blue sky. The poem ends on a dark note: this poster selling the idea of worldly holiday pleasures to us has been replaced by a health advertisement about cancer.
So much might be considered a crude summary of this crude scenario outlined in the poem. But if we ask what Larkin means by showing us this snapshot of vandalism, we find ourselves grappling with some very common themes of Larkin’s poetry. For one, sexual relationships: it is a fact that many posters at this time used images of beautiful women to try to sell products to the public, but the act of violence perpetrated upon this fictional beauty raises all sorts of questions relating to masculinity, class, and sexual attitudes in Britain in the twentieth century. As James Booth observes in his biography, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, there is a sexual suggestiveness to the language of this poem right from the first stanza on, especially the ‘crude’ puns on ‘hunk’ and ‘palms’, which suggest that the (implied male) observer of the poster wants to get his hands on the young woman in the poster.
There is even a suggestion of violence in the colloquial phrase ‘slapped up’, used in reference to the girl on the poster rather than the poster itself: ‘She was slapped up’. The ‘tuberous cock and balls’ which the vandal draws in between the girl’s legs may suggest that she is being forcibly inducted into the graffiti artist’s sexual fantasies, though it remains ambiguous: it could be the vandal’s attempt to destroy her feminine beauty by giving her male genitalia, much like the moustache that’s painted in above her upper lip. Either way, such an act of artistic violence inverts what the original poster had itself implied: in that first stanza, the hotel had emerged from the girl’s thighs, as though she were astride it. Now, she is astride a ‘cock and balls’, in Larkin’s characteristically blunt phrasing, as if the artist is saying ‘balls’ to the very idea of dreamy perfection represented in the advert.
Balancing all this, though, is the implication that this is all inevitable, or natural: that the rather crude critique that the poster is subjected to is a more normal and realistic attitude to life than the lies promulgated by the advertisement. Note how graffiti artists aren’t described defacing the poster; instead, after a couple of weeks, ‘her face / Was snuggle-toothed’, passive voice rather than active. It is as if her decay from ideal beauty to flawed grotesque (and ultimately to nothing) is paralleling the patterns of real life: beauty and optimism give way to bitter disillusionment and decay, culminating in oblivion. The ominous message of the replacement poster for the ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ billboard, ‘Fight Cancer’, acquires an extra meaning in this light.
‘Sunny Prestatyn’ is quintessential Larkin, describing a very simple, specific scene through offering a list of observations which are loaded with deeper significance. Its themes of consumerism, cynicism, class, masculinity, sex, and the gulf between the ideal and the real, are found throughout The Whitsun Weddings.
Image: The Promenade at Prestatyn by Jeff Buck, via geograph.org.uk.