I have spent longer on the biographical details of John Betjeman because, in what was his longest and most profound poem, Summoned By Bells (1960), he writes his autobiography in blank verse.
He was born in London in 1906, the only child of a prosperous middle class family. The family firm made what we might call ‘Knick-knacks’ from silver and fine woods, destined to grace houses that boasted parlour maids, cooks and nannies. The family were originally Dutch, but at prep school during The Great War John was bullied because the name had a Germanic ring to it. “Betjeman’s a German spy – shoot him down and let him die!” was the cruel chant.
His senior schooling was at Marlborough. He hated games and was too bookish for his more muscular Christian school chums, but managed to survive by being clever. He began to write poetry, obsessively, and it was here that he developed a lifelong passion for an England dotted with rarely-visited churches, cross-crossed with sleepy country railway lines, with dusty trunk roads punctuated by mock Tudor pubs serving the Bona Fide traveller.
By the time he went up to Oxford, tensions were already well developed at home. His father had begun to suspect that his son had no intention of succeeding him as head of the business, and he saw this as a betrayal not only of himself, but the dozens of craftsmen who relied on the firm for their livelihood. This bitter division was to haunt Betjeman in later life, but was inevitable. Throughout this his mother – a rather fragile hypochondriac – tried to act as conciliator, with little success.
Oxford was a time of church-crawling, endless sherry lunches with fellow disciples of Maurice Bowra, but little academic success. After being sent down he briefly followed the time-honoured route of failed undergraduates and became a teacher at a prep school – in his case an obscure establishment called Heddon Court in East Barnet where, bizarrely, he was in charge of cricket. This was in 1929, but by 1933 the school folded and has long since been demolished. Gradually, he made his way in the literary world, while being paid as the assistant editor of The Architectural Review. His later career, when his poetry flourished, is well documented elsewhere. He was a natural for television and broadcasting, and became something of a national treasure. He died in Cornwall, at the age of 77, in May 1984.
So what are we to make of Betjeman’s poetry today, the age of cancel culture, triggered university graduates, and the most virulent class war that I can remember in my seventy-odd years of being sentient? He has been described – by lesser writers – as mediocre. His prevailing themes included the foibles and rituals of the English middle class, churches, railways, Victorian buildings and London. Hardly the stuff to bring him to the cutting edge of the literary razor in 2022, admittedly. But his detractors – or those who see him as an anachronistic bumbler, mugging it up for TV cameras and radio microphones – miss the point, big time. Time and space forced me to ignore the sheer joy found in his description of railway stations, gymkhanas, Edwardian suburbs and churches and look at his compassion. In Sun and Fun, he begins by gently mocking the ‘morning after’ scene in a tawdry London nightclub where, in a corner, is an elderly socialite, lamenting the passing of youth and recalling her heady days as a debutante. But the mockery turns on its head in the last verse:
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.
That scared old woman confronting her mortality tugs at my heart every time I read those words. Another elderly lady, probably long widowed, perhaps sent to a nursing home by her family, features in Death In Leamington Spa. Verse one speaks for itself:
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa
But then the nurse, oblivious, comes into the room:
And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.
Again, the final two verses need no commentary from me:
Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.
She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.
Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death, but this beautiful elegy on a national event was written long before those years. What never fails to amaze me is the sheer craftsmanship of the poem. He wrote his poems to be spoken out loud, and worked them over and over, and said them to himself endlessly until he was satisfied. King George V died at Sandringham on 20 January 1936. The ‘young man’ in the final line is, of course, the future Edward VIII.
Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.
The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;
Old men who never doubted, never cheated,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air
Ladies and gentleman, I rest my case.
IN PART FOUR
THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIAN WHO
CAPTURED HIS ENGLAND IN VERSE