Universal Home Doctor

by Simon Armitage
ISBN: 0571217265

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A Review of: The Universal Home Doctor
by Kevin Higgins

Simon Armitage's latest, The Universal Home Doctor, is a collection certain non-conservative poets would no doubt hope to avoid. Indeed Armitage's poem, "The English", contains one of the traits such poets like to rail against most: the apparent rejection of the future (and by implication of change or experiment in either society or art) in favour of the safely embalmed English past:

Regard the way they dwell, the harking back:
how the women at home went soldiering on
with pillows for husbands, fingers for sons,
how man after man emerged at dawn
from his house, in his socks, then laced his boots
on the step, locked up, then steadied himself
to post a key back through the letter-box.

The afternoon naps, the quaint hours they keep.
But since you ask them, that is how they sleep.

This calls to mind Larkin's poem, "MCMXIV", about the supposedly innocent age that ended with the onset of the First World War. Both Larkin and Armitage have been criticised for the narrowness of their vision. Auden was worldly, but Larkin was a drab provincial. And Armitage is to some extent following in his footsteps. Or so the argument goes. This perhaps has as much to do with Britain's reduced role in the world: as the Empire went English poets turned inwards towards the Hulls and Huddersfields. The going of the empire also, I think, explains the English penchant for nostalgia; we all have a tendency to exaggerate how great the day before yesterday was, but the English do it in a very particular way. Just as America is always losing its innocence, the "real" England is always on the verge of vanishing entirely. Critics like Duncan may not like this peculiarly English strain of nostalgia, but it is folly for them to ignore an important part of their own national psyche. Poetry is about language, yes. But it is also about coming to understand our own and other people's deepest motivations. And though "The English" is by no means Armitage's best poem, I do think it helps the reader understand Englishness, or at least a good deal of it.
In Andrew Duncan's The Failure Of Conservatism In Modern British Poetry (Salt Publishing), Armitage's name appears only once. If he is locked forever out of Duncan's avant-garde heaven, it's a poorer place for his absence.

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