Dec. 16, 2006

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 Jane Austen, (books by this author) born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). Austen is the only novelist published before Charles Dickens whose books still sell thousands of copies every year. Although she never got married herself, but she is best known for books about women who do get married, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). She did fall in love as a young woman, but the man she loved had no money for marriage. Later, she got a proposal from an older wealthy gentleman. She said yes, but then found herself unable to sleep that night. In the morning she did something that was almost unheard of at the time: she told her fiancé that she had changed her mind, because she did not love him.

Austen's first two books, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), were great successes in her lifetime, but after that her readers grew less enthusiastic. Neither Mansfield Park (1814) nor Emma (1816) was as popular. It was only after her death that she became one of the most popular novelists from the 19th century. After the First World War, Jane Austen novels were prescribed to shell-shocked British soldiers for therapy, because the psychologists found that Austen helped them recover their sense of the world they'd known before the war. Rudyard Kipling said, "There's no one to touch Jane [Austen] when you're in a tight place."

It was on this day in 1653 that Oliver Cromwell became the lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was the only time in British history that a man ruled as absolute dictator over the United Kingdom without wearing the crown of a king. To make money for the government, he sold off all the works of art that had been owned by the king. He shut down all the theaters. And he outlawed the celebration of Christmas, calling ivy, mistletoe, and holly "ungodly branches of superstition."

But Cromwell wasn't all bad. He helped revitalize the educational system, and though he was a passionate Puritan, he instituted greater religious freedom that any British ruler before him, allowing Christians to practice however they desired, as long as they did not create unrest. And the stronger form of Parliament that he put in place has endured in more or less the same form ever since.

It's the birthday of Sir Noël Coward, (books by this author) born in Teddington, England (1899). He wrote Private Lives (1930) and Blithe Spirit (1941). He had many successes during the '30s, but when the war started and London was under air attack, the British weren't in the mood for frothy entertainment. Coward wrote Blithe Sprit, a darker comedy about a man whose second wife is done in by the ghost of his first; it ran for nearly 2,000 performances. The program said, "If an air-raid warning be received during the performance, the audience will be informed from the stage. ... [T]hose desiring to leave the theatre may do so, but the performance will continue."

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