Betjeman and the Medics

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!

SloughIt is astonishing that Betjeman’s poem was published in 1937. The world has slipped farther and farther down a neatly flagged path to hell in the intervening 70 years.

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

Tinned minds. Yep. I recognise that idea in my tiny tinny way. We may have better access to different people, different opinions, different world views, than ever before but too many of us retreat in terror from the total perspective vortex, closing our minds behind us, and slinking off to watch lowest common denominator tv.

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.

97 pounds, presumably, and 2/6 a week for twenty years would be another 125 pounds. Ach, the numbers are irrelevant, Betjeman is talking about the numbing effect of the mortgage. We are chivvied and coerced and badgered into shape by the mechanistic nature of the organisations we deal with. We sell our soul to the bank, putting our hopes and fears down in the neat little boxes on the form and sign on the line. But then it’s a Computer that says ‘No’.

Time Magazine - The Machine of the YearThe drive for efficiency, maximising core competencies and adhering to best practice has – through the ruthless forces of corporate darwinianism – produced standardised ways for organisations to deal with people. The average transaction gets increasingly easier. I can pay a bill with two or three mouse clicks and a dozen or so keystrokes, instead of spending my lunch hour two banks, one to draw out cash and one to pay it in. This is good. But in living memory in Cirencester the Bank Manager would go to the cattle market every Tuesday with a little book. If a farmer wanted to bid for a particular bull, for instance, the bank manager would authorise the appropriate overdraft there and then and note it down in his book. Personalised banking. Expensive, though, in time and money.

Cheap conveniences and cheap pleasures have dehumanised us.

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.

Pink Floyd - The Wall - Gerald Scarfe Young British doctors are being crushed by the Machine. I am an outsider to this situation and have not mastered the details, but it has been decided that it is too messy for doctors to apply in a disorderly ad hoc way for training jobs at the appropriate level in a hospital which is local to where they live. Oh no. You see we have too many young doctors and need to cull them. And the culling must be done fairly. So 20,000 of them are being fed into a giant grain hopper which is spitting the lucky ones out into hospitals around the country. The unlucky ones won’t get jobs.

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.

The junior doctors had to fill out a form with ten or twelve questions, 150 words to each answer, to summarise their skills, attitudes, ambitions and experiences. This is efficient, it’s auditable, and if everyone plays the game to the same standard it is even fair. But it is also demeaning, dehumanising and soul-destroying.

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.

You can’t see the stars in Maidenhead any more, for the light pollution. The power-cuts in LA a couple of years ago brought phonecalls to the police and other services. “Hey, man, there’s aliens coming, see those lights in the sky, man!” There are people in Los Angelese who have never seen the stars. True story. Or so I’m told.

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

There is a narrowing definition of what is “normal” behaviour these days. Previously people could be odd, or unusual, or individual, or eccentric and still be normal. The world would adapt around them, around us, accepting people with greater or lesser tolerance as just being “like that” whatever “that” was. Now everyone is packaged and labeled and anyone at either end of the bell curve is identified as having a “syndrome” or a “disorder” or both. Oh, and given meds. Never forget the meds.

Cycle - MC EscherThe slack has gone out of the world. There are no longer any spaces which can accommodate the unusual. People are no longer accepted in their own terms for who and what they – we – are. Anyone different is drugged into conformity. If we don’t caringly and kindly administer these drugs, the world becomes unbearable, so people who are a little rough around the edges become consumers of drugs that change their natures, distort their personalities, and – oh apotheosis of human ambition – make them normal.

But do you know what? No-one’s normal. We are all distorted by the pressure of others and of the systems that we interact with, like creatures trapped in an M C Escher drawing with no leeway to move, taking on whatever shape we can create for ourselves in the gaps left by our fellows and the computerised customer service systems that provide us with turkey twizzlers and dvds.

The land fit for heroes isn’t fit for people.

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

6 responses to “Betjeman and the Medics

  1. Pingback: Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! « Archies Archive

  2. This post has touched a nerve in my pre “Morning Orange Juice” cynicism. I love that last line you wrote “This land fit for heroes is not fit for people.”

  3. Mine too Archie.

    This blog is a recent find for me and I’m so glad I finally came across it.

    Aphra, wonderful and moving post here. I loved reading it.

    I hear you about the young medics. But it’s not just the young doctors who are having to suffer at the hands of the NHS management network. Nurses with years of experience are having to reapply for their jobs, some for the third time in as many years. Demoralisation at its best. The management network is very tight – and loyal to its own… creates jobs for its own to the detriment of the frontline workers.

    What’s more, in many areas, council workers now have to get up and be in the job queue for 5am in order to stand a chance of being given a day’s work.

    In spite of all the state-of-the-art technology that you mention, in many ways, we’ve gone back a hundred years.

    Maybe it would be better to go back further.

  4. Beautiful post Aphra. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to spend the day with me. What struck a chord with me was people being medicated in order to fit in. I have one of those people in my family, who is a divine, lovely oddball, but in order to make his way “normally” has had to take pills. It’s sad that we (and I mean society as well as his family) can’t find a way to accommodate his eccentricity.

  5. What Charlotte, Earthpal and Archie said.

    I remember leaving work earlier this eyar and turning to my coworker to say ‘I can smell snow – bet it’ll snow tonight.’ And she looked at me as if I had grown a tree out of the top of my head on a whim – People can’t smell weather, that’s nuts. And weird. And I’m making it up. She was perfectly friendly, but perfectly incredulous. And had lived in the big city all her life. Where I grew up, everyone could smell weather.

    And we were all late to work next morning as London trains collapse in hysterics in less than one inch of the white stuff.

    One tiny little diffeerence in experience and early training, one small skill, and the poor girl was freaked the heck out, and I spent the entire day wishing I’d never mentioned it.


  6. Thank you archie, for the compliment and the plug.

    Earthpal, you are right, it isn’t just the young medics. I am shocked by what you are saying about council workers though.

    Charlotte, it is the way we force lables on people and thereby coerce them into stereotypes which upsets me. I have been thinking for a while that it is harder and harder to just be oneself in this world. My heart goes out to your relative.

    Reed, it’s a shame you couldn’t pretend to have caught an early weather forecast. At least no-one will try you as a witch.

    Thank you all for such heartfelt responses.


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