Monday, October 22, 2007

Grumpy Autumn Evening Corner: Slough by John Betjeman.

I'm currently not in a very good mood, so I just thought I'd post one of the finest pieces of bitchery in poetry: Slough by John Betjeman, as read with disgust by The Office's David Brent:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

· Slough, one of Betjeman’s most cutting poems, was published in 1937 in the collected works Continual Dew. Slough was becoming increasingly industrial and some housing conditions were very cramped. In willing the destruction of Slough, Betjeman urges the bombs to pick out the vulgar profiteers but to spare the bald young clerks. However, on the centenary of the poet's birth, Betjeman’s daughter apologised for the poem. Candida Lycett-Green said her father "regretted having ever written it". During her visit, Ms Lycett-Green presented Mayor of Slough David MacIsaac with a book of her father's poems. In it was written: "We love Slough"

· Slough is written in the conventional quatrain scheme, with rhyme pattern of AAAB. Betjeman’s usage of three rhymes in each stanza adds an ironic lyrical quality to a poem describing a place as “Hell” and the shorter fourth line of each stanza acts as a conclusion of the quatrain. These are shorter, using hard words such as “belch” and “yell” to add impact. Slough is divided into ten stanzas, showing there is plenty of information to convey about this area.

· Whereas many of Betjeman’s poems are about his love of topography, Slough expresses his hatred of this area. This is apparent from the beginning, where he asks for “friendly bombs, come fall on Slough.” The juxtaposition of “friendly” and “bombs” are ironic, and paint a Hellish image, of the area, and this is sustained with words like “Death”, “mess” and “Hell.” Furthermore, the imagery of the poem is violent and horrific, “They’ve tasted Hell”, and “dry it in the synthetic air”, further adding to the negativity of Slough.

· War imagery is rife, from the repetition of “tinned”: “tinned fruit, tinned milk, tinned bins”, which creates the image of rationing and constriction. Betjeman then personifies this with “tinned minds, tinned breath”, implying that it is not just the area that is bad, but the people too. His social satire continues when he mentions “that man with the double chin” and “the bald young clerks”, further continuing the “repulsive” description of Slough. The people, like the place, are conveyed violently, with repetitions of “smash”.

· However, Betjeman does not just satirise the appearances of these people, but also their personalities. They tell “boring dirty jokes” and are by his description “mad”, showing that the terrible state of Slough reflects in its residents, and that “it isn’t fit for humans now.” He describes the residents as uncultured, “It’s not their fault they do not know the birdsong from the radio”, and uses vulgar words to reflect the vulgarity of their actions, “belch” and even implies misogyny, “Who washes his repulsive skin in women’s tears.” Furthermore, Betjeman offers sarcastic sympathy to the “cheats” by repetition of the phrase “It’s not their fault”, which suggest the opposite, and that his derogatory comments to the people are deserved.

· Many of the key words and phrases in Slough deal with the superficial, which could be used to convey his dislike of change. He describes the banal actions with derision, “with care/Their wives frizz out peroxide” and “bogus Tudor bars”, which, relating to “tinned minds”, show the people’s inability to appreciate the better aspects of life. Instead of “see the stars”, they “belch.”

· The final stanza repeats the first line of the poem to accentuate the awfulness of it. When the last line, “the earth exhales” is completed, the reader feels the full sense of the “Hell” and repulsion that has been apparent throughout.

Sigh. I miss English Literature.


charliemac said...

I think you are letting your imagination run away with you.
I have lived in Slough for 35 years and Betjeman wrote what he saw at the time. You, trying to read his mind is like all these people saying that Nostradamus predicted all the great ills of our time.

Slough was like what he wrote at the time (not much better now) His daughter was trying to save face in the fact that her father was a crap poet. God knows how he got that job in the first place.

You are over analysing the work of a mans feelings at the time. Poetry is off the cuff. You shouldn't have to sit and analyse it

Anonymous said...

Well if we don't have to analyse it.. why is there an english course which forces you to analyse poetry?!!

Thank you for this post.. it had made the poem a bit easier grasp :).