Mars man Betjeman
Alan Edwards on the loss of one of our less celebrated art forms: the advertising Poem and the rhyming jingle
For music lovers 1959 was the year that the music died when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper crashed. For many poetry lovers 1984 was the year that poetry died when John Betjeman was laid to rest in the Cornish earth he had so often hymned.
I felt the pain of both events but even more I have mourned the loss of a poetic tradition that had the insight both of ‘Baby I Don’t Care (You’re so square)’ and the optimism of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ – the rhyming advertising jingle.
The death of the long established genre of poetic advertising significantly coincided with the decade of Betjeman’s death. Could it be that the Poet Laureate was the man who penned such haunting lines as ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’? Could the verse be a reparation for Betjeman’s earlier cruel wish that ‘friendly bombs would rain on Slough,’ site of the Mars factory?
Poetry, particularly verses learned in childhood, can be a great support. For some, daring deeds have been made possible by determined repetition of Kipling’s ‘If.’ For others, the courage to pop the question has been given by the memory of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.’ For me, lines learned at my grandmother’s knee, have long given comfort, ‘They come as a boon and a blessing to men; The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen.’
Whenever life’s trials threaten to overwhelm me I remember the assurance of these lines and feel ready for another day’s breakfast and its accompanying verse. ‘High o’er the fence leaps Sunny Jim. Force is the food that raises him.’ ‘Force’, earliest of the breakfast cereals; Sunny Jim the pig-tailed optimistic athlete who decorated the packet, source of the affectionate nickname of the late avuncular Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan.
Advertising poets were at their best when commending products that brought relief, mental and physical. Who, hearing the Andrews Liver Salts song, would doubt the benefits it conveyed? ‘Just a glass in the morning / Will soon stop you yawning / And Andrews will brighten you up / Every day.’
Andrews has been overtaken in the laxative league by keg beers. However, it is worth noting that similar pharmaceutical advertising verses were close in spirit to the spiritual jingles which accompanied Moody and Sankey revivals. The crossover between commerce and conversion was seen in such playground parodies as: ‘Hark the herald angels sing / Beechams pills are just the thing. / Peace on earth and mercy mild / Two for man and one for child.’
By the Seventies, the minimalist verse inspired by the Beatles ‘All You need is Love,’ with its repeated refrain, reached the advertising versifiers. ‘Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum’ was an indication that verse epics were out-moded.
The consequences of the falling educational standards also noticed by the Seventies were seen in the Heinz refrain: ‘A million housewives every day / Pick up a tin of beans and say / Beanz meanz Heinz.’ Could such mis-spellings have come from Betjeman and his Waverley pen? The writer was undoubtedly a man because of the sexist assumption that only girlz opened tinz, but Betjeman would never have written ‘Summoned by Bellz.’
The ultimate housewife, Katy the Oxo mum, had she cooked in the 1930s or 40s, would have been greeted by appreciative verses. By the 1970s, her family couldn’t produce even one couplet to praise her cutlets.
The transitory nature of advertising verse had been foreshadowed when Betjeman wrote ‘The Corona man is down your way, He hasn’t very long to stay,’ lines with an echo of Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils.’ Incredibly none of Sir John’s biographers recognize his authorship of lines of such authentic Betjemanesque melancholy. Is curiosity as well as poetry dead?
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