Many of John Betjeman’s poems focus on the different behaviour by humans. He looks at the different aspects of human nature and explores them in different ways and very often uses satire to do so. The idea that the folly of human beings is a constant source of amusement to him is a contentious statement that is also a very strong generalisation and so to a large extent not entirely true. Amusement is a term usually used in a light-hearted way and very often Betjeman’s presentation of human nature goes past this and is rather more serious.
In the poem “Executive” Betjeman presents the foolishness of human behaviour to the reader in a comical way, however it is clear that Betjeman does not find the behaviour of the “Executive” amusing but more appalling. The speaker of the poem is a very materialistic character, who boasts about his lifestyle,
“I am a young executive. No cuffs then mine are cleaner;
I have a slim-line briefcase and I use the firm’s Cortina.”
Executive John Betjeman
The poem is a soliloquy where in the beginning the character is advertising himself. He clearly believes himself to be of high status as he describes himself as an “executive” which also implies to the reader that he believes himself to have a good and sturdy job. However, this is very soon challenged by the fact he carries a “slim-line briefcase” implying to the reader that he may not actually have that much work and also the car he is driving belongs to the “firm,” rather than his own and so it seems that the speaker is making himself appear more important than he really is.
“Sun and Fun” shows a different presentation of “folly” as rather than presenting this behaviour in a comical way, Betjeman uses a very sad and longing tone that seems very reminiscent that makes the reader sympathise with the “nightclub propiertress.” Betjeman shows here that the foolishness of human behaviour can actually be quite sad,
“When Boris used to call in his Sedanca,
When Teddy took me Down to his Estate,
When my nose excited passion,
When my clothes were in the fashion,
When my beaux were never cross when I was late,”
Betjeman uses the past to tense and repeats the word “when” to emphasise that the life of the propiertress is totally different now and that although that was how she used to behave, in the present tense it is the complete opposite. It seems that with age she has lost her allure and although she was once wanted and desired by many different suitors and used to be courted in luxury cars now she is left wondering “What on earth was all the fun for?” Here it is clear that Betjeman does not see her foolishness as amusing but as distressing as he presents her “folly” as what caused her to feel “old and ill and terrified and tight” when she got older.
Executive expresses the epitome of the modern world as it depicts the falseness of what society was becoming as the speaker is very superficial,
“I’ve a scarlet Aston Martin- and does she go? She flies!”
Owning as Aston Martin would be a luxury, however having it in the colour red shows vulgarity as it is a very tacky colour in which to own a sports car. It is very vibrant and so it also shows that the Executive does not want to hide his wealth but wants everyone to know about it as he is also describing the speed at which he can travel. He clearly has no sense of humility and does not wish to be modest about what he has. He comes across to the reader as very pretentious and just emphasises how foolish he is for being so shallow. Betjeman also portrays the “Executive’s” thoughtless qualities when he says,
“Pedestrians and cats and dogs we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speed boat which has never touched the water.”
Betjeman shows that the Executive clearly does not care about anyone other than himself as he would rather go fast in his car than watch out for others. It shows that he is self-important and uncaring which is further emphasised when he talks about his speed-boat as it is clear that he wants to behave as though he has money and has wonderful, expensive items but does not need to use it. The Executive is clearly devoid of all morals and Betjeman mocks him and although it is in a comical way it is not amusing because the serious undertones are clear that he is appalled by this foolish behaviour. There is an element of wry amusement however, it is clear that the Executive’s need to boast about his material items is portraying what Betjeman was believing the world to become and shows the parts of the modern world and developing society that he detested.
On the other hand, however, the beginning of “Sun and Fun” shows elements of amusements as it begins by rhyming emphasising a more light hearted idea of foolish behaviour in the nightclub. Also, the title “Sun and Fun” seems relatively jolly and this is very ironic as actually it is about a tired, old nightclub propiertress which shows that her foolishness is amusing to him because the title of the poem is clearly suggesting the opposite idea of what the poem is about. Betjeman does show comedy within the stanza,
“The ashtrays were unemptied
The cleaning unattempted,
And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor.”
Betjeman shows that the propiertress has a lot of work to do and that her life is a struggle, this is made amusing and comic by Betjeman’s use of bathos at the end of the stanza. This makes the stanza more light-hearted which is a contrast to the disheartening penultimate and last stanza when she is questioning what the point of it all was. At the beginning of the poem, the reader is given the impression that the propiertress is a figure of amusement; however as the poem finishes it is clear that although there may be comic elements ultimately the propiertress’ foolish antic when she was younger has let to depressing circumstances and the reader feels more empathetic rather than amusement.
Overall, it is clear that the folly of human behaviour does not proved a constant source of amusement to Betjeman because it is clear that the behaviour that he does talk about with satire is not for amusement but what he sees as generally appalling and foolishness leading to greater distress in the future.