DAY 191: Learning poetry for those after dinner gatherings

10 Mar

The fact that Philip Larkin looks like Eric Morecambe is a bonus in my book.

BACK in the olden days, everyone could recite poetry after the dessert course, but now it’s a lost art.

A quick poll of Facebook associates reveals one person can recite Wilf Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ while the rest are caught embarrassingly short at soirees that call for poetic expression.

Personally, I know half a ‘Jabberwocky’ and that’s about it.

I like poems written in layman’s language with a grudging sentimental humour, like those of Philip Larkin and self-proclaimed hack John Betjeman; no metaphysical meanderings or frothy layers of meaning here.

I won’t lie, though – I’ve only heard of Betjeman because he wrote a slightly self-righteous ode to my hometown, which is the one I’m going to memorise, while Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to but they do…”) people don’t so much recite as hold up as evidence.

Doesn’t matter. It’s made me go out and read more by them.

Oh no. Pixie Geldof has a Larkin tattoo.

Betjeman’s ‘Slough’ (pronounced “ow!”) was written back in 1937, when I would have thought the town was comparatively lovely. Having said I like layman’s language, I’m particularly fond of the Biblical-style line “Swarm over, Death!”. NB: Funnily enough, bombs did fall on Slough a couple of years later, during World War II. Not enough, though.


Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.

It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

Keeper? You know it now, but you can still test me – I did learn it.

5 Responses to “DAY 191: Learning poetry for those after dinner gatherings”

  1. emmo March 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm #


  2. valentish March 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    I think it’s a woman’s noo-noo, but it’s also a boring town in Berkshire.

  3. Tom March 12, 2011 at 2:03 am #

    I remember this poem from high school. I liked it then; I like it even more now.

  4. Mel March 14, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    I’d never heard that Betjeman poem before, but another one of his made a big impression on me as a kid.

    • valentish March 15, 2011 at 10:35 am #

      That’s a beautiful, uncompromising poem. Last year I decided to make my dad a list of reasons he’s ace (much like Betjeman’s “He liked the rain-washed Cornish air / And smell of ploughed-up soil / He liked a landscape big and bare / And painted it in oil”, as I thought it was a shame people wait till someone’s dead to want to tell them how appreciated they are and how you’ve noticed all these little things about them). He said, “You missed out a lot.”

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