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In the first line, we’re presented with a familiar image: “In frames as large as rooms.” The images on billboards (hoardings) are compared to rooms. Rooms, from other poems like ‘Mr Bleaney’ and ‘Ambulances’, are like containers that hold our lives, and these billboards are containers of life too – although there is a distinct difference between the lives they portray and real lives.
As we move through the stanza, we’re presented with a number of bizarre images, allusions to advertisements that would have been pasted on hoardings at “the ends of streets”. Hull was bombed heavily during the Second World War, and was left riddled with holes. Into these, rather than rebuilding, appeared many billboards.
Images of “giant loaves”; “screen graves with custard” means that a custard hoarding hides the cemetery. Advertisements for “motor-oil and cuts of salmon” (fine cuisine in the 1950s) “cover slums.” “High above the gutter, / A silver knife sinks into golden butter” – one of Larkin’s absurd comical rhymes.
The bizarrely comical juxtaposition of the adverts and real life shows how adverts seem to “block” the bleak reality of life. They “perpetually” depict how “life should be”, yet the “should” gives away how different it is. Perhaps, Larkin suggests, they screen a reality that we don’t want to face.
In the next few lines, Larkin explores just how advertisements work on people.
As modern readers, we’re still familiar with “that small cube” – the OXO advert. Adverts suggest that by buying their items, a person can have all those extra wonderful things, “smiles,” “cars,” and “youth.” The comfortable images, such as the Ovaltine advert with “deep armchairs / Aligned to cups at bedtime” “Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares”, despite the fact that they “They dominate outdoors”.
In the second stanza, the reality of life is painted: where “nothing’s made / As new or washed quite clean”. They radiate “pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes” – they look down on our imperfection, cold, mocking.
In the world of the adverts, “dark rafted pubs / Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs” (the impersonal pronoun “ones” augments the upper-class image presented), yet the juxtaposition to the real world is even more marked: “the boy puking his heart out in the Gents just missed them.” Heartbroken(?), just drunk(?), the youth of the “boy” makes his “puking” image even more pitiful. It seems, in his naivety, he has been taken in by the adverts promises, found them empty, and has been brought crashing down.
Yet, adverts work upon all, for we jump to the image of the old, “as pensioners paid / A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes’ Tea / To taste old age”. The image of “dying smokers” is just as pitiful: they are killing themselves due to the “that unfocused she / No match lit up”. The “she”, who walks “as if on moment”, alludes to the Bible, and Jesus’ walking on water, suggesting that the dying smokers revere her as a god (and perhaps, as Larkin was an atheist, she is just as phoney). Alluring women were used to sell cigarettes, but no “drag” “ever brought nearer” that unattainable fantasy that smoking would attract women.
Through adverts, just like in ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, we are conned into believing there is a better world. As advertising is a big part of society, Larkin shows that a big part of society is based upon deception.