Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins
So thunders Micah (3:12) at the morally corrupt of his era, and so too, in an altogether more gentle way, does the poet, John Betjeman, who borrows from Micah the image of the plough.
Betjeman, the genial gentleman poet of England’s rolling south seems a world away from the Old Testament prophets and their thunderous declamations, but in ‘Slough’, like Isaiah, he calls for the wrath of a foreign nation to be unloosed upon his own people. This was written in 1937, with Britain on a war footing, and Nazi Germany ready to unleash terror on Europe. The idea of bombs falling on British cities was hardly fanciful, and would very soon become a reality. For the Old Testament prophets, Assyria and Babylon, powerful heathen nations, could be tools in the hand of God, unleashing His fury against a people who had forsaken him and broken their covenant. Betjeman doesn’t mention God in this poem, and Betjeman isn’t really rubbing his hands at the prospect of mass slaughter and destruction, but he obviously feels that Slough represents a similar turning away from righteousness for England and the English as the sins of the leaders and peoples of Israel and Judah were a turning away from Jehovah.
Slough, for non-British readers, is a satellite town west of London, actually a very old town in the county of Berkshire, but last century subject to the urban development typical of twentieth century England: bland, grey, bereft of civic pride, and architecturally utterly unconnected to any English tradition. This isn’t just a poem about town planning though: Betjeman deplores the whole culture of the place – the uninspired, uncultured, blandly hedonistic way of life that was becoming the norm in the England between the wars.
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.
(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)
The poem re-emerged into the British public’s consciousness a few years ago when it was read out at the end of an episode of the Office, by Ricky Gervais’s character, the contemptuous, scoffing, David Brent. The Office was itself set in Slough, and its depiction of the place – and David Brent’s defence of it, was the worst public relations the town had had since, well, ‘Slough’.