Roger McGough (born 1937) is one of Great Britain’s best-known and well-loved poets, having been writing both serious and comic verse for more than 40 years. He currently presents “Poetry Please”, a poetry request programme on BBC Radio 4 that has been running for more than 30 years, but it was as a member of “The Scaffold”, a three-man comedy, poetry and music group from Liverpool, that he first attracted public attention.
“Goodbat Nightman” was originally a song lyric from 1966 that was the group’s second release as a single (with “Long Strong Black Pudding” on the B side). The poem as printed in McGough’s “Collected Poems” (and as given below) is slightly shorter than the song, due to a comedy conversation between “Batman” and “Robin” that occurs at the half-way point.
God bless all policemen
and fighters of crime,
May thieves go to jail
for a very long time.
They’ve had a hard day
helping clean up the town,
Now they hang from the mantelpiece
both upside down.
A glass of warm blood
and then straight up the stairs,
Batman and Robin
are saying their prayers.
* * *
They’ve locked all the doors
and they’ve put out the bat,
Put on their batjamas
(They like doing that)
They’ve filled their batwater-bottles
made their batbeds,
With two springy battresses
for sleepy batheads.
They’re closing red eyes
and they’re counting black sheep,
Batman and Robin
are falling asleep.
While amusing in itself as a parody of the Batman and Robin comic books (published by DC Comics), some of the fun is lost if readers do not appreciate that it also parodies a poem by A A Milne (“Vespers”) dating from 1924. This contains the couplet:
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers!
(Christopher Robin Milne, who features in the “Winnie the Pooh” stories, would have been four years old when “When We Were Very Young”, in which “Vespers” appears, was published).
Apart from the nearly complete quotation in the third stanza, the parody of “Vespers” is a loose one, as McGough prefers to go his own way and indulge his appetite for wordplay by squeezing as many Batman puns into the later lines as he possibly can. However, he is amused by the concept of how Batman and Robin would end the day, first hanging upside down from the mantelpiece before heading upstairs to their “battresses”.
McGough adds some interesting twists to the Batman and Robin concept, apart from the notion that they would say their prayers for “policemen and fighters of crime” rather than Mummy, Daddy and Nanny as per Christopher Robin. For example, according to McGough, Batman appears to be a vampire bat who would go to bed after “a glass of warm blood”, which seems odd for the famed protector of Gotham City.
This is a short poem that was set to a simple little tune in the original Scaffold song. That means that, even with an instrumental introduction, it was a bit on the short side for a vinyl “single”. As mentioned above, the song has a spoken interlude in which the prayer is extended, in Christopher Robin style, to include other superheroes such as Superman and Superwoman, and Spiderman and Spiderwoman. When Robin asks if there was ever a Batwoman, Batman explains that there was, but she met her end when she stepped in front of the Batmobile. “Suicide?” asks Robin. “No, batricide”, says Batman. At the very end Batman has to make a short visit to the “batroom”.
These fillers certainly help to extend the song to a more acceptable length, namely two minutes and seventeen seconds, but there is a question as to whether they should have been retained in the printed version. The “prayers” would have made the link with “Vespers” more convincing, but would also have broken the diction of the poem. Given that the poem can stand on its own without these extras, it was probably sensible not to include the extra text.
In Goodbat Nightman, Roger McGough is just having fun with a comic legend, by taking him out of his familiar context and placing him in one that is absurdly everyday. This is a comedian at work as well as a poet, and he skilfully uses the tricks of both trades to produce something that has no real message but is there to give the reader (or hearer of the song) a few minutes of harmless amusement.