“Slough” was first published in Betjeman’s 1937 collection Continual Dew. Between the World Wars the Berkshire city of Slough (rhymes with cow) in southeastern England became highly industrialized. When the winds of a second war with Germany started to gust more strongly in the mid-1930s, almost overnight Slough became home to hundreds of factories dedicated to producing the machinery of defense at the expensive of the simple rural lifestyle to which it had grown accustomed. It was this state of the revolution to which the poet objected and which caused him to set pen to paper to compose a work that seems only partly satiric in its expectation that the industrial transformation had become a road that could only lead to the ruination of society.
From the very start, “Slough” was controversial and, some probably suspected just a few years later, potentially treasonous. After all, the narrator of the poem calls for bombs to drop from the skies and destroy the city of Slough and its industrialized structures conditioned by artificial air to keep cool its canned foods eaten by wives with chemically poisoned hair whose drunk, belching husbands are employed cheating businessmen growing fat off the blood of the sons of crying mothers. A mere three years after the poem’s publication, bombs would be dropped over London by Nazi bombers 57 nights in a row.
The legacy of Betjeman’s most famous poem may be just one more casualty of World War II. Had their been no Blitzkrieg and had there been no realization of the narrator’s call for devastation, “Slough” might well have gone on to enjoy the recognition as satire awarded Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Imagine what the legacy of that famous literary work would be today if in its wake there had been actual reports of babies being eaten.
Instead, Betjemen himself eventually dismissed his poem as tiresome and fit for nothing greater than publication in a magazine. Betjemen’s daughter spent the 100th anniversary of her father’s birth making a public apology for a poem he came to regret ever writing. The poem has been referenced to the positive by various disaffected rock bands and received its most public critical analysis from the boss played by Ricky Gervais in the British version of The Office which is, not coincidentally, set in the city of Slough.