On the centenary of John Betjeman's birth, Michael Horovitz rounds up the recent collections and biographiesby Michael Horovitz / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
The centenary of John Betjeman’s birth heralds a further series of pushes for the Betjeman product range, which will doubtless continue trucking for yonks. Exhibitions documenting his achievements are opening at the Bodleian and British libraries and Sir John Soane’s Museum. Radio and television programmes old and new are en route, in commemoration of one of the most pioneering and popular broadcasters ever. And a massive array of books by and about Betjeman and his works will be on display in stores all over England to an extent inconceivable for any other 20th-century poet.
Betjeman’s lifelong production of poems has enjoyed bigger sales—over 2m of the “Collected Poems” to date—than that of anyone since his beloved Tennyson, presumably abetted by the fact that Betjeman did so much else, more and more publicly, in his later years.
His reputation among his younger poetic contemporaries remains mixed. The late capo of literary hatchet-men, Ian Hamilton, who loved to hate any versifier with the slightest whiff of homosexuality about him, often lambasted JB’s alleged “look-at-me predictability.” Tom Paulin deplores his alleged “anti-intellectual antiquarian” pitches for cosy unquestioning conservative Englishness. Winnie the Pooh-style infantilism certainly informs some of the grounds on which many readers have hugged Betjeman’s output close to their breasts—sometimes, it would seem, by analogy with the way Betjeman himself hugged the most constant of his bedfellows, Archibald the teddy bear.
But, as Andrew Motion’s introduction to the new paperback “Collected Poems” (John Murray, £12.99) points out, “Betjeman is generally a tough-minded, as well as a tender-eyed poet.” If you read the actual poems closely, you may find that, pace Hamilton, a substantial majority are neither predictable nor solicitous of personal attention to the author. Most of them seek to draw the reader’s attention to matters the poet considers of universal concern—and do so by specific means few other poets I know of have deployed with comparable mastery. Such poems as “The Cottage Hospital,” “In a Bath Tea Shop,” “Death in Leamington” or “Devonshire Street W.1” load every rift with the ore of detailed observation, resonant layers of meaning and imaginative sympathy for subtly realised people.
A new edition of “The Best Loved Poems of John Betjeman” (Murray £9.99), introduced by Barry Humphries, illustrates why they would be so loved. They document the way things are in plangently memorable language, sound effects and rhythms. “A Subaltern’s Love Song,” arguably Betjeman’s greatest hit, is far from the simplistic whimsy his rubbishers would have you assume. It identifies—phrase by phrase and with perfectly modulated shifts of tone and cadence—the speaker’s irreconcilable wobbles between exhilaration and disquiet in the throes of upper-middle-class courtship:
Around us are Rovers and Austins afar.
Above us, the intimate roof of the car,
And here on the right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice,
And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car-park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
“Sun and Fun (Song of a Night-Club Proprietress)” conveys the stark terminal despair that strikes when present hopelessness is set against long-lost happiness:
I walked into the nightclub in the morning;
There was kuemmel on the handle of the door.
The ashtrays were unemptied,
The cleaning unattempted,
And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor…
…There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches,
There was fun enough for far into the night.
But I’m dying now and done for,
What on earth was all the fun for?
For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.
The rhyming of unemptied/unattempted and done for/fun for is a reminder—which critics like Paulin and Hamilton might tune into—that many of these monologues and vignettes are indeed songs. Betjeman has as much in common with Lennon and McCartney, or with his fellow celebrant of village greens and suburbia, Ray Davies of the Kinks, as he does with his ex-Highgate Junior School teacher TS Eliot.
Eliot famously revived the school of Donne for having taught the lyric to think, but also ushered in a concomitant decline—in the hands of less gifted exponents anyway—of authentic singability, whether as melodic sound in the air, or reverberating in the mind’s ear. One of the most radical artistic evolutions of recent decades has streamed from folk song, the blues and Façade through beat and jazz poetry to Liverpool and other multi-regional voices, punk, reggae and rap.
Between 1974 and 1981, Betjeman made four recordings, with superlative 1930s music hall-style accompaniments arranged and conducted by Jim Parker of the Barrow Poets, of which Banana Blush and Late Flowering Love were swiftly acclaimed as contemporary classics of poetry-with-music. Enduring literary reputations tend to be built by the appreciations of readers and by knock-ons through the works of writers that follow. And very few protagonists of the oral verse/singer-songwriter revival since the war have been untouched by Betjeman.
Witness for example the opening of Betjeman’s “Executive” of 1974:
I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
The maitres d’hotel all know me well and let me sign the bill.
You ask me what it is I do. Well actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man and partly P.R.O.
Essentially I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.
Now sample the Salford punk laureate John Cooper Clarke’s account of the bottom end of the same market 20 years later:
can you afford it
this is the crunch
others are audits
a kiss or a punch
a dangerous neighbourhood
don’t push it too far
i feel like i’m made of wood
i stay in the car
i had to risk it
i had to go there
i travel in biscuits
getting me nowhere…
this is the punchline
they last you a lunchtime…
…the critical daylight
the smell of the urine
the rain on the drainpipes
the filthy 2-2 time
life is precarious
a long way from home
in alien areas
i look like a misfit
no one i know there
i travel in biscuits
getting me nowhere
Betjeman’s radio talks were what first brought him a large and enthusiastic public audience in the early 1930s, and the beautifully produced “Trains and Buttered Toast” (Murray £14.99), expertly edited by Stephen Games, belatedly brings their scripts together. They too remind us of how rooted in the vocal and oral was Betjeman’s development. When television got going in the 1950s, he was in at the off and turned out to be just as adept on screen as on air. Throughout the earlier years of both media’s histories, each broadcast made for unprecedentedly intimate one-to-one communications with its receiver, and so from his middle years to his death in May 1984, Betjeman was commonly regarded as “the nation’s teddy bear.” I suspect this cult status, more than his actual writings, underlies much of the spleen his name still frequently provokes among would-be rulers of official cultural roosts, on the lines of Geoffrey Grigson’s castigation of “the low brow’s middlebrow.”
Volumes 1 & 2 of “John Betjeman: Letters 1926-1984” (Methuen, £12.99 each) have just appeared, edited with exemplary tact by his daughter Candida Lycett Green. So has a 448-page paperback distillation of Bevis Hillier’s magisterial three-volume “John Betjeman: The Biography” (Murray £18.99). Taken together, these tomes will offer all but the most dedicated Betjemaniacs rather more than they might wish to know about this ultra-sensitive chap, although none of his own writing tends to be less than revealing and entertaining. “Betjeman” by A N Wilson (Hutchinson £20) is unique amid the latest clutch in being entirely unauthorised by the close-knit Betjeman-John Murray industry. Hillier is a trustworthy and sedulous Boswell, where Wilson is more akin to a plain-speaking Sam Johnson or a debunking Dean Swift. He writes from the standpoint of a fellow-toiler in—and probably more sophisticated manipulator of—British media gamesmanship. This sometimes brings a mischievous acerbic twinkle to his narrative, which is nonetheless imbued with deep respect, love and understanding for its subject.
Wilson has accessed an archive of personal materials, notably hundreds of letters by Betjeman’s wife Penelope Chetwode about their life together and apart. These materials are drawn on in Betjeman in a style that borders here and there on the tabloid-sensational. The discernible basics of JB’s love and sex lives do lend themselves to this kind of treatment, but for my money such “shilling life” droppings miss the essential points. As Wilson observes, Betjeman’s “best love poetry was addressed not to his wife or his long-term mistress but to figures who were almost or actual strangers. The crush, the love from afar, were what inspired his muse. It was Betjeman’s nature to yearn.”
Intimations of mortality dogged Betjeman’s footsteps from his earliest days to the last, and the growing awareness that the end might be very close elicited a rune that will live alongside the chimney sweepers’ dust shared with Shakespeare’s golden lads and lasses, and the cold eye of Yeats’s horseman—”The Last Laugh”:
I made hay while the sun shone.
My work sold.
Now, if the harvest is over
And the world cold,
Give me the bonus of laughter
As I lose hold.