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.
Politicians say daft things from time to time because after all (contrary to the view of Hugh (hedge fund) Hendry on Question Time from Glasgow last week) they are human. But I wonder how many ordinary people were genuinely shocked by Boris Johnson’s reference to Kosovo or Chris Bryant’s ‘sociological’ cleansing in the context of housing benefit cuts. The flurry of artificial fury sent me scurrying to my poetry book.
I was amazed to discover that Come Friendly Bombs, John Betjeman’s polemic against the industrial invasion of Slough, was written in 1937. That was just three years before the real hell of the blitz rained down on London and other UK cities. But it was also 20 years since the First World War: Betjeman would have lived through Zeppelin raids on Britain. What he wrote, sometimes more in ironic sorrow than anger, was deliberately intended to shock readers out of their complacency.
It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
Come Friendly Bombs is one of my favourite Betjeman poems. I love the incisive language from a writer more often associated with affectionate, even sentimental, verse about Britain and the British. Instead, this is a beautifully accurate, full frontal attack on greed and stupidity ( inspired apparently by a plan to build 850 factories in Slough). That is why I am surprised to discover it was written as long ago as 1937; it has the feel of the 50s or 60s.
I am sorry to read in Wikipedia that Betjeman’s daughter says her father later regretted writing the poem. The imagery works because it is offensive. But no-one reading the words believes Betjeman wants to blow his fellow human beings to smithereens. It’s attitudes he’s attacking.
Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.
So how about Kosovo and social cleansing? Last week’s righteous indignation from the coalition deliberately (and successfully) distracted attention from their potentially disastrous cuts to housing benefit. Surely I wasn’t the only one who did not find the ‘cleansing’ references offensive? Hyperbole is justified when it is the best or only way of drawing attention to a crude and callous policy targetting the ‘undeserving poor’. The actions of the government are likely to cause much more harm than the words of their critics.
Treat yourself to a moment of John Betjeman’s real wrath – here’s Come Friendly Bombs on one of many websites printing the poem in full. And then let’s look out for our current poet laureate. Carol Ann Duffy knows how to wield a powerful metaphor.