Executive – John Betjeman – Analysis


I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
^ ^ ^ ^ ^/^^^ ^^/ ^ ^ ^^^
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina.
^ ^ ^^^/ ^^ ^ ^ ^/ ^ ^ ^^^
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
^ ^^^ ^/^ ^^^ ^/ ^ ^ ^^ ^
The maîtres d’hôtel all know me well, and let me sign the bill.
^ ^^ ^^/ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^/ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
(aabb 15 syllable lines)

You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.

For vital off-the-record work – that’s talking transport-wise –
I’ve a scarlet Aston-Martin – and does she go? She flies!
Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.

She’s built of fibre-glass, of course. I call her ‘Mandy Jane’
After a bird I used to know – No soda, please, just plain –
And how did I acquire her? Well, to tell you about that
And to put you in the picture, I must wear my other hat.

I do some mild developing. The sort of place I need
Is a quiet country market town that’s rather run to seed
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire –
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.

And if some Preservationist attempts to interfere
A ‘dangerous structure’ notice from the Borough Engineer
Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way –
The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay.

John Betjeman (1974)

This is a period piece clearly identified by those around in England in the sixties. I remember when the Ford Cortina was the latest and greatest. And having a slim line brief case was more important than any contents! (I joke).

There was a certain respect for the upper class even though this ‘yuppie’ is portrayed here as arrogant and boastful with superficial values and the need to keep up appearances – No cuffs than mine are cleaner – I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.

A ‘yuppie’ is defined as a young urban professional. Note also that most people would work a nine to five day but this young fellow obvious enjoys his other life much more and manages to start at ten.

But not only does he suffer mockery, corporate speech and corruption take a light hearted beating too. P.R.O = Public Relations Officer and ‘integration’ the in-word in corporate development. And it is a case of knowing the right person and using such influence for personal gain – and is that so different from the way many people operate today?

The poem has well-constructed rhythm and rhyme which bounces the monologue before the reader. You can imagine the conversation taking place at one of the hostelries frequented by this person as he pursues his interest in looking for real estate opportunities. And the implication is that he does not pay his way easily – and let me sign the bill.

I like ‘Mandy’ as a choice of name – do you remember Mandy Rice-Davies and the ‘Profumo Affair’.  Mandy would have such public association for those reading this poem at the time it was published.

Betjeman has been cited as a poet of nostalgia with a dislike of the modern. This is clearly evident in this poem. He certainly mocks the bull-nose development of his day and although it is period piece it also has a certain resonance with modern times.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984. This link gives more detailed commentary on his poetry.

… and a link to John Betjeman on Wikipedia.

Hospital for Defectives – Thomas Blackburn

Hospital for Defectives

By your unnumbered charities
A miracle disclose,
Lord of the Images, whose love,
The eyelid and the rose
Takes for a language, and today
Tell to me what is said
By these men in a turnip field
And their unleavened bread.

For all things seem to figure out
The stirrings of your heart,
And two men pick the turnips up
And two men pull the cart;
And yet between the four of them
No word is ever said
Because the yeast was not put in
Which makes the human bread.
But three men stare on vacancy
And one man strokes his knees;
What is the meaning to be found
In such dark vowels as these?

Lord of the Images, whose love
The eyelid and the rose
Takes for a metaphor, today,
Beneath the warder’s blows
The unleavened man did not cry out
Or turn his face away;
Through such men in a turnip field
What is it that you say?

Thomas Blackburn

Occasionally the first reading of a poem strikes you with some force. The above certainly falls into that category. A poem that engages the mind well after the last stanza is read.

This poem was written more than half a century ago when there was not so much acceptance and sensibility for those with physical or mental handicaps. I have it from a friend who was tutored by Blackburn that it was written while Blackburn travelled into his poetry position at Leeds University for he passed close to an asylum where those interned could be seen in the grounds from the road.

The poem has contrasting images – the rose which is a symbol of beauty and love, the eyelid which has beauty in its intricate and delicate nature (also likened to rose petals by the German language -Austrian poet Rilke) and then the great contrast in the images of handicapped people moving in silence and being subjected to abuse without complaint. How do we come to terms with a creator that can produce such contrast in life and to what purpose are the creation of ‘defectives’.

There is also an interesting contrast in language. Images have no language as such, the viewer constructs his or her own internal reading. And in the poem those interned are without language too – so there is a nice internal balance within the poem.

For me, the two lines that standout are … Because the yeast was not put in / Which makes the human bread.

It was not until we discussed the poem in a group that I realised a certain discomfort with these lines – as though the ‘defectives’ were not human … i.e. not ‘human bread’ … this of course becomes very worrying suggesting a ‘them/us’ difference … so perhaps in the sensitivity of today these lines would not be acceptable by readers. The fact that punishment/mal-treatment is accepted without reaction also gives an inhuman feel. Hopefully today we are more inclusive of handicapped people than when this poem was written.

I think one of the problems coming to terms with the lives of those with severe handicaps is our projection of our own life-value on to that of another. We feel such people must be severely restricted in the appreciation of life and all that life has to offer and therefore wonder what meaning life has for these people. Consider the debate on euthanasia in such terms.

However, I think that those that are involved with such people have a deeper appreciation of the situation and the extent of life-appreciation and have a better understanding in the way life has meaning and indeed realise that the handicapped have much to give to others.

The line In such dark vowels as these? is a clever take on the construction of words for vowels alone are defective in the creation of words.

In summary, this is a confronting poem that must be time-stamped when read.

Thomas Blackburn is not a well-known poet and here are some details courtesy of Wikipedia.