In the 1950s Sir John Betjeman wrote some verses called “How to get on in society”. They were intended as a contribution to the then current debate over “U” versus “non-U” speech (“U” being upper-class and “non-U” non-upper-class) and were published in Noblesse Oblige, a collection of essays edited by Nancy Mitford (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1956). One object of the poem was to challenge readers to pick out the “non-U” genteelisms and circumlocutions satirised in Betjeman’s lines.

We no longer have (if we ever had) that kind of class-based linguistic demarcation in this country but we do have wide variations in vocabulary and usage related to age, education and other factors. Here, with a title borrowed from Anthony Trollope, are some verses I have tried to compose in the Betjeman spirit for our own time and place.


I’m sorry your partner has passed, Dad,
Though I guess it’ll come to us all.
Her farewell send-off at the yacht club
Was great and we all had a ball.

We shouldn’t have laughed when the ashes
Blew back in the celebrant’s face
And Jarrod had too much Jack Daniels
And wanted to trash the whole place.

You were both a fantastic fun couple
How long is it now since you met?
Was it when you took Melanie’s schnauzer
To have his teeth cleaned at the vet?

It was sad on the day that you left, Dad.
But you fell out of love, as you say
And Mum got the condo in Brighton
So maybe it’s better that way.

I related to Val as a person
Though she was ages older than I
(When she said we could pass as twin sisters
“In your dreams,” I just thought in reply.)

She enjoyed a nice chilled Tassie chardy
Though it made her too loud, you once said,
Like the time she got wasted at Chrissie
And had to lay down on my bed.

And she said, “F*ck the stupid Kris Kringle”
And gave you a slap in the street.
And with next door and everyone watching
She got doggy poo on her feet.

Your speech made me come over weepy,
But how come the slide show fell flat?
Who was it that scanned the wrong photos?
You should ask for a discount for that.

I tweeted the date to the guys, natch,
And texted an invite to Mum,
But she said she’d be packing for Bali
So wouldn’t be able to come.

Fair enough, since she’s still really hurting
And needs some more time to move on.
Her counsellor’s great, he said closure
Would come once her anger had gone.

He’s going to Bali as well, ‘cos
He said she just needs TLC.
Mum’s paid megabucks for a penthouse
With a plunge pool and views out to sea.

Maybe you and her should consider
Becoming an item again.
I read sex can be great in your sixties,
(If there aren’t any problems by then).

You wouldn’t believe what has happened
I’ve had my share of tragedy too.
Some stupid Chinese in the car park
At Safeways, who hadn’t a clue

About driving this great black Range Rover
(don’t they say that their eyesight is poor?)
Backed into the Golf with her tow-bar
And left a great dent in the door.

I don’t want to sound like a racist,
Oh my God, you must know how I feel.
How could someone like her get a licence?
She could hardly see over the wheel!

I needed a coffee to calm me
And somewhere to sit down and chill.
Do you think I could locate my smartcard
When the waitperson gave me the bill?

There were power cuts at home when I got there
And I couldn’t turn on MKR.
And the prawns in the fridge I was thawing
Had leaked on the Chobani jar.

And then there are issues with Gary,
I love him of course, he’s a doll.
But since he moved in last December
His mood swings are out of control.

The chemist down near the train station
Said Ativan’s well worth a trial
But Gary won’t see the GP, his
Default mode is total denial.

My Master's is on the back burner
Potentially I'd get Haitch 2B
But how can I spend time at uni
When Gary won't get up till three?

I tell you, I just do not need this,
I know how Mum feels, you too Dad
It’s like Someone up there doesn’t like me,
But I’ve never done anything bad.

Still, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
The life coach I’ve started to see
Says I worry too much about others
When I need to prioritise me.

So I won’t be in touch for a while, Dad
I know being alone must be hell
But the negative vibes of your grieving
Could impact my headspace as well.

Published in Quadrant May 2017

1 comment:

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