From The Archives: Travel Posters, Glamour, And Iconoclasm

Reminded by one of Roger Ebert's tweets that yesterday was Philip Larkin's birthday, I thought the occasion would be a good excuse, even a day late, for resurrecting a post featuring one of his poems. "Come to Sunny Prestatyn" is so deceptively plain-spoken that you can easily miss the rhyme scheme: a beautiful example of carefully crafted effortlessness.

Isle of man poster british railways 

This poster, up for auction next week from which sold for $2,160 at Swann Galleries, calls to mind a different (and possibly fictional) British tourism poster from the same era, the one in Philip Larkin's poem “Sunny Prestatyn.” The poem perfectly captures both the commercial glamour of travel posters and the urge to puncture the illusion.

Come to Sunny Prestatyn 
Laughed the girl on the poster, 
Kneeling up on the sand 
In tautened white satin. 
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a 
Hotel with palms 
Seemed to expand from her thighs and 
Spread breast-lifting arms.

She was slapped up one day in March. 
A couple of weeks, and her face 
Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed; 
Huge tits and a fissured crotch 
Were scored well in, and the space 
Between her legs held scrawls 
That set her fairly astride 
A tuberous cock and balls

Autographed Titch Thomas, while 
Someone had used a knife 
Or something to stab right through 
The moustached lips of her smile. 
She was too good for this life. 
Very soon, a great transverse tear 
Left only a hand and some blue. 
Now Fight Cancer is there.

With its aggressive cynicism, the graffiti destroys not only the model’s beauty but the poster’s promise of escape to a sunny, joyful world where satin stays taut and white. By defacing the poster, making the portrait ugly and ridiculous, the vandals remind viewers that the picture is an illusion, an image “too good for this life.”

To buy Philip Larkin's complete works, go to Collected Poems on Amazon.