87. Slough: John Betjeman

For those who have enjoyed the original British version of “The Office” you may be familiar with the poem “Slough”. It is the city in which the original show takes place. That show focused on the dead-end, life-killing nature of working in a business office. The character viewers are to relate most to, Tim, works for Wernham Hogg Paper Company for what he sees as a temporary basis until he moves on to some vague future (college). Over time, as viewers get to know the characters, that theme softens a bit, especially during the second season where the uncomfortable nature of Ricky Gervais’ character David moves more towards center stage. Gervais, as creator, writer and lead actor, does an admirable job of not turning “The Office” too much towards treacle, although every character has his or her likable moments. It is a tricky, well written and satisfying balance. In the end, the series preserves the deadening nature of work, even as some sort of community forms.

As a side note, the Christmas special ties up many lose ends, is amusing, but softens all edges. If you are a teacher, and have suffered through consultants running inane in-service programs, I recommend Episode 4, simply called “Training”, from Season 1. Also note that the British sense of “appropriate” is different than American standards, just as the superiority of the British and American versions are more about differences than “better” or “worse”. Still, check it out from Netflix or other sources.

I love that they work for a paper company. It is honest, essential work. We need paper. Yet, few things are as dull as selling and distributing it. There is no irony, like selling urinals. What do students imagine they will be doing? How many want their parent’s jobs? What does that say about them (good and bad)?

As for the poem, “Slough” was written in 1937, long before television or “The Office”. Betjeman slams Slough as being a concrete deadzone where life has been snuffed out. His solution: bomb it. Written as World War II heats up, his call for the destruction of civilization as its salvation is an interesting one. The images he uses of a world encased on concrete and tin are quite effective, as is the solution. He is relentless. I do not believe he has an personal bias towards Slough, but sees it as representative.

Looking back at the series, which many of your students are probably familiar with (at least the US version), the opening credits, filmed in Slough and with an interesting theme song, evoke many of the images and moods found in the poem. Have them watch it and comment on a) the visuals and b) the music. Is Betjeman right? Fifth years later is Slough a place they would like to live?

Then, if you wish, have them compare it to the peppy American version of “The Office” theme. Scranton, PA does not seem as desperate or as deadening as Slough, even as they try to ironically instill some of that middle America suburban-death flavor into the series (As Michael says, “There ain’t no party like a Scranton party because a Scranton party don’t… stop!”). It is a peppy tune.

Think about your own town. Is it a Slough? What type of poem would your students write?

If you go to the Wikipedia article on “Slough” you will find that Betjeman’s feelings softened, and that his ancestors recanted a bit. That raises, I think, the issue of honesty as an artist. This is, in itself, an interesting lesson, if not unit. Did Slough change, or did Betjeman soften? How hard is it to be honest, and what price does art come at? If art is honesty, than how strong is an artist? Can your students write one true thing?

All good middle school stuff. Have that conversation!

John Betjeman

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.


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