Review of ‘Betjeman’ by A.N. Wilson
I, like many others, have enjoyed John Betjeman’s poetry over the years. His unashamed Englishness, his role as a happy champion of the good old Church of England, and his sing-song poetic style have won him a place in the affections of many.
He perhaps marks the change from those mighty poets writing in English (Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas etc) to a more accessible, if less powerful, style. By any standard he was an incredibly popular modern poet and his collected poems sold remarkably well.
His poems are full of the sights and sounds of England, even if blemished (or enlivened, depending on your perspective!) by the old man’s momentary yet frequent crushes on unattainable young women. Here are a couple of short samples, if you’re not familiar with his work.
‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.’
(From ‘Middlesex’, in ‘A Few Late Chrysanthemums’, 1954)
In a Bath Tea Shop
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
Records and the Telly
My fondest memories of Betjeman were hearing him on ‘Betjeman’s Banana Blush’, an LP of him reading his poems set to lively 20’s style music (by Jim Parker). It’s one of the few LP’s I never threw away or sold, although I no longer have a record player.
The last of the rhyming poets?
In terms of his poetry one can’t help enjoying his commitment to rhyme in a depressingly non-structural unpoetic poetic world. Was Betjeman the last of the rhyming poets? Or was his quaint rhyming style the final confirmation that rhyme = superficiality? Something homely befitting a Pam Ayres rather than a future WB Yeats?
He himself was painfully aware that he was considered second-rate by others, who were often less than charitable. But is his popularity connected to his obvious delight in rhyme, in his naïve love of the lyrical?
A Courageous Vicar’s Letter
There are some wonderful asides in this book. The incredible letter from the vicar of their local church asking Betjeman’s wife, Penelope, not to play the church organ any more is a true ‘English’ classic and is worth repeating:
My dear Penelope,
I have been thinking over the question of playing the harmonium on Sunday evenings here and have reached the conclusion that I must now take it over.
I am very grateful to you for doing it for so long and hate to have to ask you to give it up, but, to put it plainly, your playing has got worse and worse and the disaccord between the harmonium and the congregation is becoming destructive of devotion.
People are not very sensitive here, but even some of them have begun to complain, and they are not usually given to doing that.
I do not like writing this, but think you will understand that it is my business to see that divine worship is as perfect as it can be made.
Perhaps the crankiness of the instrument has something to do with the trouble. I think it does require a careful and experienced player to deal with it.
Thank you ever so much for stepping so generously into the breach when Sibyl was ill; it was the greatest possible help to me and your results were noticeably better then than now.
It’s difficult to imagine a Pastor today writing a similar letter to the worship leader! Or a worship leader e mailing such a message to the keyboard player!
Betjeman the Campaigner
Betjeman became, towards the end of his life, both a campaigner and a TV personality. His programmes took him around Britain, as he educated his viewers on church and town architecture and, at the same time, bewailed the horrible architecture of the 60’s and 70’s which replaced much of it. Most of us would now agree.
Edward Irving and CS Lewis
One surprise was his love of Edward Irving’s 19th century church buildings. Irving was the 19th century charismatic leader who was charismatic not only in personality but also in the Biblical sense – he encouraged his congregation to speak in tongues and prophesy. Betjeman acknowledges the architectural beauty of the buildings Irving and his movement built in London. (p.276)
Also of surprise was Wilson’s somewhat harsh representation of CS Lewis who was ultimately responsible for Betjeman being sent down from Oxford, something he never quite got over.
Betjeman the Husband
Although Wilson’s biography primarily interests us in terms of Betjeman’s literary legacy, it is impossible to avoid aspects of Betjeman’s own moral confusion and contradictory convictions.
He was famously ‘C of E’, loyal to the so-called ‘High Church’, and yet would not give up his mistress. He eventually lived full time with her while trying to maintain an emotional peace between mistress, church and his wife. It is suggested that they had drifted apart years before. Nevertheless, the demands on Penelope’s patience make difficult reading, she, bearing with the other woman and he, travelling across Britain enthusing about church architecture for guide books and television programmes.
The England we imagined
Like other artists, John Betjeman’s lasting legacy in the minds of most is not his lifestyle but his artistic gift. His poems still raise a smile and capture an unthreatening, nostalgic, ‘nice’ middle-class England. This is the England the ex-pats remember. Betjeman is whimsical.
As A.N. Wilson says, ‘He is not the poet of the grande passion, he is the poet of the crush.’ (p.298)
Poetry has a vital place in culture – pulsating from the heart, capturing the cry of an era, or holding a moment vivid like an HD picture. But poetry can also be just a song, a song that can brighten the day and lighten the step. Perhaps that’s where Betjeman fits in.
‘Betjeman’ by AN Wilson is published by Hutchinson
His Collected Poems are published by John Murray
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© 2009 Lex Loizides