Apr. 24, 2007

The Lift Man

by John Betjeman

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Poem: "The Lift Man" by John Betjeman from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lift Man

In uniform behold me stand,
The lovely lift at my command.
   I press the button: Pop,
And down I go below the town;
The walls rise up as I go down
   And in the basement stop.

For weeks I've worked a morning shift
On this old Waygood-Otis lift.
   And goodness, don't I love
To press the knob that shuts the gate
When customers are shouting 'Wait!'
   And soar to floors above.

I see them from my iron cage,
Their faces looking up in rage,
   And then I call 'First floor!'
'Perfume and ladies' underwear!
'No sir, Up only. Use the stair.'
   And up again we soar.

The second floor for kiddie goods,
And kiddie-pantz and pixie-hoods,
   The third floor, restaurant:
And here the people always try
To find one going down, so I
   Am not the lift they want.

On the roof-garden floor alone
I wait for ages on my own
   High, high above the crowds.
O let them rage and let them ring,
For I am out of everything,
   Alone among the clouds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton, (books by this author) born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). She's best known for her series of novels featuring the private investigator Kinsey Millhone. She grew up with two alcoholic parents and later said, "When you grow up in a dysfunctional household, you quickly tune in to what's going on under the surface. From age five or six, I was scanning, figuring out all the stuff not being discussed."

She got the idea for her first mystery novel while she was in the middle of a custody battle with her second husband. She started fantasizing about murdering him, but she said, "I knew I couldn't pull it off. So I decided to just put this in a book and get paid for it." She took five years to write the novel, and she spent a lot of that time researching things such as insurance fraud, toxicology, how to pick a lock, and how to handle a gun. She finally published the book in 1982 as "A" Is for Alibi, and it was a huge success.

Grafton has since published many more novels in the same series, and each book begins with the next letter of the alphabet—"C" Is for Corpse (1986), "D" Is for Deadbeat (1987), "E" Is for Evidence (1988), and so on. She plans to keep writing the novels until she gets to the letter Z; the last novel will be called "Z" is for Zero.

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and critic Robert Penn Warren, (books by this author) born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). He enrolled at Vanderbilt University and planned to major in chemistry. But he happened to take an English literature class with a popular professor named John Crowe Ransom, and after that class Warren became obsessed with poetry. When T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland came out in 1922, he and his friend Allen Tate were so impressed that they memorized it, and Warren drew scenes from the poem on their dormitory wall.

He eventually took a job at Louisiana State University at a time when the governor of Louisiana was the corrupt but extraordinarily charismatic politician Huey Long. Warren used Long as a model for the main character of his best-selling novel All the King's Men (1946), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, (books by this author) born in London, England (1815). As a young man, he got a job in London as a postal clerk. He struggled to pay his bills, he had a series of unhappy love affairs, and nothing came of his writing. Then, in 1841, he was offered a transfer to Ireland, and he saw it as a chance to get away from the scene of his failures. In Ireland, Trollope developed a social life for the first time. He went hunting and he went to pubs, and he fell in love and got married, all within a few years. Once he had settled down to his new life, he began to write about a fictional county called Barsetshire.

In just 11 years, between 1855 and 1866, Trollope published six novels about the extended families and parishioners and civil service workers living in that imaginary county, novels such as The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866), all of which were best-sellers.

For most of his writing life, he continued to work for the British postal service and even helped invent the street-corner mailbox. To turn out his novels, he woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. and wrote for three hours, producing about a thousand words an hour. In less than 40 years, he published 47 novels, as well as many other books of essays and sketches. He said, "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules."

Anthony Trollope also said, "Of the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable."

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