I Was Being Good (Honest)

I Was Being Good (Honest)

A more cheerful choice this week as Brian Patten’s “Dear Mum” describes some mysterious happenings at home.

I was being good

Brian Patten (1946—)

Poem 271. Dear Mum

Dear Mum,

While you were out
A cup went and broke itself,
A crack appeared in the blue vase
Your great-great grandad
Brought back from Mr Ming in China.
Somehow, without me even turning on the tap,
The sink mysteriously overflowed.
A strange jam-stain,
About the size of a boy’s hand,
Appeared on the kitchen wall.
I don’t think we will ever discover
Exactly how the cat
Managed to turn on the washing-machine
(especially from the inside),
or how Sis’s pet rabbit went and mistook
the waste-disposal unit for a burrow.
I can tell you I was scared when,
As if by magic,
A series of muddy footprints
Appeared on the new white carpet.
I was being good
but I think the house is haunted so,
knowing you’re going to have a fit,
I’ve gone over to Gran’s for a bit.

This explanatory note describes a scene of total chaos that seems to have happened totally by accident and random chance—or perhaps the narrator knows more than he is letting on…

Brian Patten’s words paint the picture so clearly—we can visualise the broken cup, the cracked vase “from Mr Ming in China” (I do like that, it’s so like a child to casually dismiss a priceless piece of porcelain simply because they don’t understand).

We can picture the overflowing sink and the “strange jam-stain” on the kitchen wall—isn’t it odd that the jam-stain is “About the size of a boy’s hand”?

I hope that the cat was extracted from the washing machine and the rabbit from the waste-disposal unit without harm—these seem to be more intentional than accidental, but as the narrator no doubt fervently hopes, “I don’t think we will ever discover/Exactly how”.

The final straw is the appearance of muddy footprints “on the new white carpet”—an event that despite its mysterious nature, will be familiar to many parents though it always seems to happen “As if by magic”.

Asserting his own virtue (which must surely be indubitable), the lad concludes that all these strange things must have been caused by a ghost and, knowing that his mother is certainly going to be a little irate (in the same way that the Sun is a little hot), he has “gone over to Gran’s for a bit”. Perhaps Gran will defend the little blighter—I mean the poor lad—from the righteous wrath of his parent. After all, he’s likely to be quite distressed about all this poltergeist activity…

I like it because it is descriptive and funny and it sounds just like a young boy trying to justify what the author Lemony Snicket might describe as “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. As the poem progresses, the events become more outlandish and the explanations less convincing, and it is easy to believe that rather than stay and face the music, the child has fled somewhere he hopes will be understanding and forgiving, as grandparents tend to be.

The poem is a popular choice in education—particularly for students studying English as a foreign language, or so it appears from the many YouTube videos that cover it. I did find a brilliant film by Mick Rendell that captures the poem really well and have provided the link below.


  • Watch the film by Mick Rendell on YouTube.