On a Portrait of a Deaf Man

I listen to a lot of Radio 4, generally while I’m driving and alone. For those of you unfamiliar with the station, it’s BBC’s only major ‘talking’ radio station (apart from Radio 5, which is all sport), and, along with the TV channel BBC 4, is one of the few bastions of high culture and seriousness left in the British broadcast media, with the formerly serious BBC2 (Newsnight aside) having largely fallen to the barbarian hordes of celebrity-obsessed infotainers. I’ll very often hear about a good film I’d like to see on Radio 4, and sometimes I’ll hear about a good book – a couple of months ago there was a programme on the brilliant comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Now and again, I’ll hear a snippet or two of poetry.

The new series ‘Cultural Exchange’ promises more chance encounters with great art and literature for the discerning commuter. The idea of the series is that a figure from the world of arts or entertainment discusses a poem, novel, painting or film which had a great effect on him or her. I know – here we go again: does every arts or literature programme have to be made accessible by fronting it with a well-known figure or celebrity? But there are some very interesting items promised – it will be interesting to see what Will Self has to say about G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday, for example, and I can’t quite wait to hear Madness singer Suggs on Betjeman’s On a Portrait of a Deaf Man.

In fact, I couldn’t wait, so I Googled his name and Betjeman’s and found this.

Whether or not you’ve heard of Madness, you’ve probably found yourself humming one of their tunes at least once in your life. One of their most famous, the apparently innocent sounding ‘House of Fun’ shows Suggs own penchant for wordplay, written as a dialogue between a come-of-age lad who has gone into a chemists (pharmacy, that is) to ask for balloons and party-poppers, and a chemist who doesn’t – or won’t – understand his euphemisms. That was back when pop stars bothered using euphemisms for salacious content – I sang along to it happily as a young child without catching any of its double-entendres. Suggs seems an admirably down to earth fellow for a pop-star, and , for all his tomfoolery, has a thoughtful side to him too. Suggs says something similar about Betjeman, telling the audience that Betjeman ‘is mostly known for frippery and girls in tennis outfits and all that’, before reading one of his darkest poems, about the death of his father.

On a Portrait of a Deaf Man


The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,

The tie, discreetly 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.

(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)

John Betjeman

I’ll leave Suggs to explain the finer points to you. I’m not sure when his slot comes up, but the programme can be heard at 7.15 (BST) on Radio 4 every weekday, and will soon be available on the radio archive.


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