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By | Verity Stob 4th September 2006 08:54

Poetry in slow motion

A Betjeman fan challenges the current laureate

Stob Thanks to the Beeb's correctly extensive celebrations of Sir John Betjeman's centenary, Betjmania is once more abroad and has conquered everywhere. (Everywhere? Well, as they say in the Asterix books, everywhere except one tiny village...)

In recent days, hooded teenagers have abandoned their accustomed role as shopping arcade pests to take a healthy interest in nineteenth century architecture: bussing out to obscure suburbs to look at early Voysey villas with interesting detailing, and entering their local parish church for the first time and noticing the original chancel that would be recognisable to Jane Austen. Such is the benign influence of the great man.

Best known for his melancholy nostalgia, it is often overlooked that Betj was also a top techie. I, for one, was hugely disappointed that neither of the recent biographies mentioned that during the 1970s he kept a pet PDP-11 in a shed outside his Cornish cottage, on which he used to compose algorithmic ditties in rhyming K&R C.

And there is also the question of the following abandoned fragment, dedicated to a she-geek who, in unenlightened times, is obliged to work as a "paper monkey" in order to be allowed near a computer. Did Betj meet her during his career as a spy? Is this a first draft of a very well known poem about a double-barrelled daughter of a famous army town?

Miss Ann-Marie Fox, Miss Ann-Marie Fox
Watches shyly and slyly through dark, tousled locks,
As I peevishly punch in my poor Autocode.
Oh do come and help me to get it to load!

With nimble white digits and mercurial delay
You refill the printer with paper so gay.
The green-and-white fanfold cascades from its box.
Will you run my batch job, Miss Ann-Marie Fox?

All this brought me round to thinking of the matter of the current incumbent of the laureateship, Mr Andrew "Slow" Motion. Hands up anybody who can name one of his poems, or recite one of his lines. Well, exactly. He just isn't IT friendly. He is yet another part of the arts mafia that controls all such positions in public life.

Inspired by the example of Betjeman, I have decided to mount a geek challenge for the laureateship. Not that I crave the ancient privileges that this post attracts (nine pints of royal sherry per annum, and rights to swan-upping and duck-harassing between Kingston and Windsor). I know my limitations. I see myself as a stalking horse, able to breach Motion's defences without arousing his suspicion.

The plan is that, once I have got Motion on the run, we persuade a proper poet to stand, such as Carol Ann Duffy, or Wendy Cope, or Pam Ayres or - ok, I'd better put in a token male - Roger McGough. I have chosen these as poets who have shown themselves tech-aware, or at least having a perceptible sense of humour - which qualities Mr Motion, whenever I have heard him on the radio, either lacks or conceals brilliantly.

(By the way, anybody chortling at my nomination of Ms Ayres can stay behind afterwards and write a 2,000 word essay on the subject "When I can write something one eighth as workmanlike as Oh, I Wish I'd Looked After My Teeth then I will be entitled to an opinion". You may also like to consider how well she captured the mood of the nation with her Dejected Thoughts on the Royal Wedding - scroll down the linked page a bit to find it - which situation caused many lesser poets to flounder.)

Enough prelim. I'm sure you all know the rules for a Laureate challenge, but a quick reminder: four poems must be submitted: one topical, one proper rhyming, one bizarre and one parody. Wish me luck. Here we go.

Pluto

Pluto:
    Defrocked planet,
    Terror of the underworld,
    Prefix to pluto-nium,
    Mickey Mouse's dog.

One cannot help but feel
It is not a lucky name.

Ode to the hourglass cursor

This is my new system, the latest!
I got it just two months ago.
Its software I'm told is the greatest,
So how come the sod runs so slow?

Apols for my impatient manner:
Explorer's gone off for its tea.
It likes to say "Hi" to the scanner
And check that there's still no drive B:.

I'm staring at Visio's splashscreen -
I clicked on a drawing in Word -
Yet still the main window is unseen.
Is this not just completely absurd?

I've put patch upon patch on this PC.
I've even indulged Acrobat.
But still it is sluggish and wheezy.
So what is the reason for that?

My Outlook is now quite appalling.
Both Opera and Firefox are bad.
There's only one app that's not stalling
But I can't browse the web with Textpad.

A virus, you think? Well, I doubt it.
I'm firewalled and NAT'ed to hell.
And anyway Sophos would clout it,
And McAfee runs weekends as well.

I thought that it might be a reg hive.
I 'decobwebbed' and checked as one should.
I'm even defragging my hard drive
(Though that never does any good).

Ten seconds it took in the DOS days:
Just turn up and turn on and boot.
And after two decades of upgrades
What gains have I seen for my loot?

This is my new system, the latest!
I got it just two months ago.
Its software I'm told is the greatest,
So how come the sod runs so slow?

['A4 sheet 3' is my entry in the bizarre category, and some explanation is necessary. It is a piece of "found" poetry. Richard Pickard, an old friend of mine and a fellow programmer-type, suffered a stroke and lost all movement in his right side, plus the power of speech and writing. As he began to recover, his (literally) cack-handed attempts at writing produced a sequence of strange notes: mixtures of real and invented words which, although nonsense, somehow have the cadences of English and, in my opinion, an unexpected beauty.

Richard has made a near-full recovery, thanks for asking, and has documented his experience in his book Twicks Twicks Out Twice, from which the following sample is taken with permission - VS]

A4 sheet 3

Wed 22th March.

(Hope the is a xif out)
(the adtoan adw are)

March curve courve courve to kend
           and spare can,

Mars kye is at a taker for to
           repearet of freedoms to cermatorny
           with with & certermony rec#mony
                                                       say ret#apat#

A cure for Alzheimer's?

The nursing homes of England
Resound to mousy click.
All would-be silver surfers
Reserve your places quick!
Miss Cadogan's been hogging the Dell since eight
And it's simply not done to remonstrate
As she once proved to the late
Mrs Thesiger
Who daringly plucked her gown:
Brought the server down.
A light on in the Rose Room:
Nurse Ng breaks out the meds
To dose her naughty flock whom
She won't find in their beds.
They're restaging the war in the downstairs lounge
For their YouTube video;
All go
At the nursing homes of England.

The nursing homes of England,
You may not realise,
Are fast becoming hotbeds
Of online enterprise.
And I doubt they'll ever live down the farce
Of Miss J's addiction to figurine glass
Unloaded on the grass
By the courier.
By busily bidding all day
She'd quite cleaned out eBay.
Miss Clwyd, I should mention,
As gentle as a lamb:
She supplements her pension
By sending filthy spam.
She's blacklisted from here to kingdom come
But all to no avail;
Junk mail
From the nursing homes of England.

[Apologies to Noël Coward - VS]

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