Britons: I need help with a John Betjeman's poem

Paul   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 14:22 GMT
Forgive me ignorance, I need some help with one phrase in (great) John Betjeman's Sun and Fun poem:

I pulled aside the thick magenta curtains
-So Regency, so Regency, my dear –
And a host of little spiders
Ran a race across the ciders
To a box of baby ‘pollies by the beer.

What is a "box of baby ‘pollies" in this context?

Paul   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 14:48 GMT
sorry, - "me" was a typo - I meant forgive MY ignorance.

Since I am here anyway, may be those of you "natives" from the UK can explain me also the meaning of the word "gas" in this fragment (from another poem, A Shropshire Lad, by John Betjeman)

The gas was on in the Institute,
The flare was up in the gym,
A man was running a mineral line,
A lass was singing a hymn,

Now, "the gas was on" - does it pertain here to gas lighting? That would be extremely odd, because the poem was written when electric lighting was long the norm.

Dulcinea del Toboso   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 18:52 GMT
It could be gas for heating.
Paul   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 20:43 GMT
Thanks - it could also refer to cooking gas. Both guesses are quite improbable though. Mine is way more improbable than yours. I guess the poem was written in the 1930s or 40s, the weather in it may indeed be cold: there’s a dead man, captain Webb, who drowned in the canal and who comes ashore as a ghost clad in a bathing suite dripping water all over and then shows up at the congregation hall. The poem, like most of Betjeman’s works, is not serious or rather it is serious in its irony. Its title mimicks a collection of (melancholic) poems by another Englishman, A.E. Housman, which were published in 1896.

Anyway, what is the meaning of the phrase (in English setting) to “turn gas on” or to have gas on” in context of an institute or school or large building. Heating? Cooking? Or is Betjeman referring to the times gone by, to, say… 1890s, and the gas is in fact lighting gas?

Any idea what are those boxed baby pollies?
Damian   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 20:56 GMT

No one actually knows for sure what Betjeman meant by "pollies" is still open to debate. My guess is that he has taken the truth with him to the grave. (His grave is actually in a very tiny churchyard next to an even tinier church next to a golf course along side a beach overlooking the Atlantic in Cornwall, SW England). It is also said that he used the word "beer" simply because it was appropriate for rhyming purposes.

Betjeman had a wry sense of humour as you can tell from his poems. My favourite is the one about the Metropolitan railway, part of the London tube system that runs out of Central London throught the outer suburbs to Amersham, via the posh, snooty suburb of Chorleywood which he mocked in a friendly way and upset the local residents when it was first published. During WW2 he also upset the residents of Slough, a town to the west of London which he disliked so much he invited the Germans to bomb it by writing a poem called: "Come Friendly Bombs and fall on Slough"!

If anyone watched the British TV comedy program "The Office" with Ricky Gervais, well the office itself was situated in Slough...pronouned ['sl au]
Paul   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 22:15 GMT
I love Brits as much as I despise you know who (most humans despise them. In fact they hate themselves). I love English poetry and English prose – from Swift and Defoe to … really nothing exciting to speak of in that department today. Unfortunately my hands-on acquaintance with England has so far been limited to a few brief sojourns in London (on the other hand I spent a few years in the Evil Empire across the ***** and became allergic it and its inhabitants for life). I’d like to rent a car to explore Britain, Scotland and Wales for a few months. English poetry and literature is my bridge to English language and English culture. But this bridge is rickety, take those boxed pollies, you say unless the ghost of Sir John Betjeman can somehow be summoned there is no way to find out what those pollies are. To me this is unbelievably frustrating – what could they be – politicians, things made of polyethylene, polio vaccine? If you take the context of the poem, there is an aging nightclub owner who comes to her establishment in the morning, it’s a mess – the nightclub is obviously a metaphor for her life or almost any life (There was kummel on the handle of the door.The ashtrays were unemptied, The cleaning unattempted, And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor), and there are spiders who run across the bar counter (with spilled ciders?) to those damned boxed baby pollies by the beer.
Poem Slough is great.
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,


Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down

Benjeman’s humo/u/r is wry and special, and very good, and to me at least, also very English. George Bernard Shaw said that England and the Evil Empire are two countries divided by
a common language, but I think it goes much deeper than just language – or rather I think Shaw meant precisely what everyone knows but is afraid to say out loud.. Benjeman wrote Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! during German Blitz. Can you imagine someone in the ****, land devoid of any sense of self-irony or humility, and more or less of any sense whatsoever, write like something like that even now? I can’t.

British TV - unfortunately I only get BBC World here, otherwise no local UK programming.

Thanks, Damian.

… so what could those boxed pollies be…?

...What are pollies anyway?
mjd   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 23:16 GMT
Remember...restraint, folks. As ignorant and rude as Paul is, he's entitled to his opinion (although I dare say I'm glad I don't live in his sad little world). Keep the discussion respectful and focused around language and we can avoid the problem that has been happening in the other thread.


Since you claim to be such an Anglophile, you might want to take note: many Britons don't like to be referred to as "Brits." They prefer the term "Briton." You've got a lot to learn, pal, but that's what we're here teach you a little something.
Elaine   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 23:22 GMT
Paul, Paul,'s people like you who make we wonder why the US even bothers with all of you. We should just sever all ties with the whole world and let all you guys take care of things on your own. After all, we need to take care of our own citizens rather than spend billions of taxpayer money on armies, military bases, and the support of other countries' defense and social programs and infrastructure. All this money seems like a tremendous waste since our efforts are never appreciated and the whole word is going to hate so much. We should also see about closing down the US market to foreign investments and vice versa, and withdrawing all our US dollars from foreign circulation. It's going to be a monumental task, but if that's what it's going to take to get us out of your hair, then so be it!

Things were so much better when we were isolationists. Yet you guys had to go and drag us into your wars. Then you got us all mixed up in your countries' financial matters by having us lend you billions of money to rebuild your post war economies. But then some you had the absolute GALL to ask us to cancel your debts! And now we're the bad guys simply because we ask you to pay up.

I tell you...we get no love and no respect. And you wonder why we "hate the world with a passion".

(Was that respectful enough, mjd? If you don't think this post pertains to language, I beg to differ...I'm demonstrating the use of irony.)
Damian   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 05:50 GMT
Personally I have no problem at all with being labelled a Brit....of course, I would prefer to be called a Scot, but taken all in all I suppose I am a Scot Brit, if it doesn't sound too much like a detergent.

What would the term be for an English person? Sassenach Brit? Sassy Brit? May be appropriate! Difficult to categorise the English....they always have to be different........just joking, honest.... I think! :-) England is far and away the dominant one among us so we can take the piss out of them with impunity.

A Welsh person could be a Taffy Brit! For those who don't know, Taffy is an affectionate term for a person from Wales.

Mjd is quite right, though......a fair number of Britons are not too keen on being called Brits, especially the older ones. I may be wrong here, but I think the term Brit originated in Northern Ireland and the political troubles in that Province. If someone knows better, perhaps he/she will inform us on this point.
Damian   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 05:57 GMT
An addendum:

I will sort of make it a mission to get into the mind of the late poet and work out what he was thinking of when he used the word "pollies". I think it is yet another Betjeman conundrum. "Pollies"?....the mind boggles at the possibilities. For starters, I think we can safely discount parrots.
Paul   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 12:54 GMT
mjd - English is my fifth language and I am no more Anglophile than I am Germanophile. I "do" love Britain but on other hand I can't name a nation a dislike. United States and its disgusting inhabitants is the only exception. By the way only thing that is clear from your comment is that you cannot teach anyone shit.

Brits - the term may be relatively recent but is firmly established in generic European English and is totally acceptable inl informal context. Calling "British persons" English is inappropriate because not all of them are English, likewise calling them Britons in an informal passage sounds pretentious. For a foreign to refer to “British persons” as Brits in an informal context is totally acceptable.

Elaine: a few notable exceptions aside, nobody in the world wants US to "bother with them." In fact most humans wouldn’t mind seeing US disappear entirely off the map. I had posted a measured and polite response to your rant in another thread. My post was deleted.

Anyway, United States is spending its "billions" on defense not for anyone's sake. Aside from a few satrapies and vassal states, United States is not a benefactor of or to anyone. United States is a burden and is a parasite of global proportion, and - unlike some empires of the past, - it is not merely a cultured, benevolent parasite but a major nuisance.

Elaine, you are a typical American, who like an indoctrinated Nazi or a Commie of the past has no clue about the world (or own country for that matter) and whose universe is a just stereotype, reflection of American propaganda, a cartoon that has no relation to reality.

Damian. – Thanks a lot, I am afraid your mission would be one impossible without aid of a spiritualist. Anyway, forget about John Betjeman, what does a pollie or polly mean in (English) English or what did it mean in the 1960s or early 70s. Is there a word like that?
Paul   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 13:01 GMT
“Damian - Personally I have no problem at all with being labelled a Brit....of course, I would prefer to be called a Scot”

I also don't mind to be called many things, like Your Highness, on the hand how should a poor foreigner figure out is the virtual person he or she is addressing English or Scot. How would you a call a native of the British isles: Brit is informal, Briton is proper, British person is preposterous.
Paul   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 13:07 GMT
A typo again from ... well... fast typing: For a foreign should be read as "for a foreigner", sorry about that.

The gas was on in the Institute,
The flare was up in the gym,

What do you think, what sort of gas is Betjeman talking about? Is lightning gas? Cooking gas? Or heating gas?
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 13:07 GMT
Well... "As ignorant and rude as Paul is, he's also" got an axe to grind. A bitter comportment suits a troubled soul.
Paul   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 13:10 GMT
I meant: "Is it lightning gas? Cooking gas? Or heating gas?