Portrait of a deaf man

Charles 3 Comments



Posted by Vale

I was listening to a programme about the recordings John Betjeman made with Jim Parker, setting his verse to some glorious music.

Until they played this, though, I’d forgotten how dark Betjeman could be.

On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man

The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,
The tie, discretely loud,
The loosely fitting shooting clothes,
A closely fitting shroud.

He liked old city dining rooms,
Potatoes in their skin,
But now his mouth is wide to let
The London clay come in.

He took me on long silent walks
In country lanes when young.
He knew the names of ev’ry bird
But not the song it sung.

And when he could not hear me speak
He smiled and looked so wise
That now I do not like to think
Of maggots in his eyes.

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.

But least of all he liked that place
Which hangs on Highgate Hill
Of soaked Carrara-covered earth
For Londoners to fill.

He would have liked to say goodbye,
Shake hands with many friends,
In Highgate now his finger-bones
Stick through his finger-ends.

You, God, who treat him thus and thus,
Say “Save his soul and pray.”
You ask me to believe You and
I only see decay.

This, I realise is number three in my very occasional series of tributes to fathers – the ‘Old Deaf Man – is certainly Betjemn senior. See numbers 1 (Horace Silver) and 2 (Astor Piazolla) here and here.


  1. Charles

    “How dark Betjeman could be”…

    To many people Betjeman’s work is seen as a confection of Slough, fish knives, and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. The darker side can come as an arresting shock. He seemed to struggle to reconcile his High Anglican beliefs with an acute fear of death. The collection of poems published in 1954 under the title ‘A Few Late Chrysthanthemums’ includes a marvellous poem ‘The Cottage Hospital’. It’s three verses long and unless you know it you will probably be catching your breath when Betjeman pitches you into his imagery in the final verse.

    At the end of a long-walled garden in a red provincial town,
    A brick path led to a mulberry- scanty grass at its feet.
    I lay under blackening branches where the mulberry leaves hung down
    Sheltering ruby fruit globes from a Sunday-tea-time heat.
    Apple and plum espaliers basked upon bricks of brown;
    The air was swimming with insects, and children played in the street.

    Out of this bright intentness into the mulberry shade
    Musca domestica (housefly) swung from the August light
    Slap into slithery rigging by the waiting spider made
    Which spun the lithe elastic till the fly was shrouded tight.
    Down came the hairy talons and horrible poison blade
    And none of the garden noticed that fizzing, hopeless fight.

    Say in what Cottage Hospital whose pale green walls resound
    With the tap upon polished parquet of inflexible nurses’ feet
    Shall I myself by lying when they range the screens around?
    And say shall I groan in dying, as I twist the sweaty sheet?
    Or gasp for breath uncrying, as I feel my senses drown’d
    While the air is swimming with insects and children play in the street?

  2. Charles

    What a terrific poem, Michael. I hadn’t come across it before: such a vivid portrait of the horror some of us feel at the thought of dying.

    It also conjures an image that has haunted me since I was a boy.

    It was early evening and the original version of the Fly was on the television. Just as in the later Jeff Goldblum version, fly and man are transposed, but the closing scene of the first film was uniquely terrible.

    You follow the camera as it closes in on a spider’s web. A fly is trapped and you see with horror that it has a man’s head. The spider advances towards its prey and you hear the minute voice of the helpless fly/man calling out ‘help meeee, help meee’. I have never forgotten the dread of it.

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