For many people, including me, reading usually means reading prose. We are wary of poetry, perhaps (again, in my case) because it was so clumsily dinned into us at school. A small dose of poetry in Class 2 could vaccinate you against it for the rest of your life. Nevertheless, there is one modern English poet who in my view can help us break through the barrier into an appreciation of what poetry can achieve. That is John Betjeman.
Betjeman was born in London in 1906. His family was comfortably off, with servants and a horse and brougham, and in due course John was packed off to a good public boarding school, Marlborough. After Marlborough, he made it to Oxford but, partly through having an excessively good time there, failed one essential exam and was thrown out. Betjeman’s father, Ernest, owned and ran a factory in Islington which made cabinetry, its best-known product the Tantalus, a carrying device which locked bottles of alcoholic liquor in place to prevent servants from filching their contents. As the Betjemans’ money mounted up, so the family moved up, indeed uphill, from socially less desirable Gospel Oak to better class Highgate. Ernest intended his son to succeed him in the business (he would have been the fourth generation) but young John was having none of it, and the result was near-lifelong bitterness between them.
Though determined from early years to be a poet, Betjeman found that poetry made little money, so he had to turn his talents elsewhere. After Oxford he taught, though unsuccessfully and not for long, then for five years he edited the Architectural Review. At the same time, he helped to devise the Shell Guides for motorists and wrote the Devon and Cornwall volumes. On top of that – and while writing poetry – he gave a large number of talks for the BBC Home Service (what we would now know as Radio 4) on a wide variety of topics that included the desecration of England’s architectural heritage and lesser-known writers who had taken his fancy. A collection of his radio broadcasts appears in a delightful anthology entitled Trains and Buttered Toast, edited by Stephen Games and published by John Murray, 2006.
Betjeman’s personal life was not plain sailing. In 1933, at the age of 27, he married Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a Field Marshal. Socially, she was some way his superior, but then he always had his eye on upward mobility. They produced two children, but the relationship was not otherwise happy, and they drifted apart. Then in 1951, in a chance encounter at a dinner party, Betjeman became instantly smitten with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire – and she with him. They formed a lifelong living-together relationship. However, Betjeman couldn’t bring himself to divorce Penelope, and he tortured himself to the end of his days over his treatment of her.
After the war, Betjeman’s reputation steadily increased, not only on account of his poetry but also (and probably more) because of his tireless campaigning, especially on television, to preserve the best of Victorian England. In 1969 Betjeman was knighted and in 1972 was appointed Poet Laureate. Although throughout life London was Betjeman’s working centre of gravity, his great pleasure was Cornwall – and it was his solace too, both from the miseries of childhood and from the miseries of old age, which, sadly, took the form of Parkinson’s Disease. Some years before his death, in 1984, at the age of 77, Betjeman had bought a small house in Trebetherick, on the north Cornwall coast near Polzeath. He died there and is buried nearby at the church of St Enodoc.
It is Betjeman’s involvement in the real world around him that makes him so accessible. He is able to see something memorable, poetic, sad or wryly comic in the everyday. Moreover, he captures them in everyday words and phrases, far removed from the near-incomprehensible guff that characterises some other modern poetry. Betjeman’s contemporary, W. H. Auden, wrote that he is “so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium“, while Philip Larkin, himself not given to warm sentiment, says, “how much more interesting & worth writing about Betjeman’s subjects are than most other modern poets…”.
I hope the following few excerpts from Betjeman’s poems will illustrate the praise heaped upon him by his peers.
One of his best-known lines, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough”, is often mistakenly assumed to relate to the Second World War. In fact, it was written two years before, and deals with the wanton destruction of older rural England through the connivance of philistine councillors and spiv builders. Here is a little more:
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough,
It isn’t fit for humans now.
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Come bombs and blow to smithereens
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath… (From Continual Dew, 1937)
Betjeman is alive not only to the built environment but also to the lives and thoughts and deeds of the people who work in it. He sees, and celebrates, their diversity, whether they are bolshy, deserving of sympathy, or somewhere in between. Here is a verse from The Lift Man, written in 1940 but not published until 1982:
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. (From Uncollected Poems, 1982)
Then, also from Uncollected Poems, he writes of an old man, a retired postal clerk, whose wife has recently died:
I sold the Morris out Benhilton Way
– I couldn’t keep it in this summer weather –
That empty seat beside me all the day
Along the roads we used to go together.
Out to Carshalton Beeches for a spin
And back by Chislehurst and Bromley Town,
Where Mum would have her lemon juice and gin
And I would have a half of old and brown –
And those last months when she was really bad
Those were the only pleasures that she had. (The Retired Postal Clerk, 1940)
Betjeman often includes in his poems such mundanities as brand names: not only the Morris car and the Waygood-Otis lift in the examples above, but also Ovaltine, Robertson’s marmalade and Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears. He has a schoolboy’s alertness to modes of transport: to railways – the North London, the Metropolitan (Early Electric!), the Great Western and the London and South Western – and to cars and trams as well. Here are a few of the opening lines from Betjeman’s verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960):
Once a Delaunay-Belleville crawling up
West Hill in bottom gear made such a noise
As drew me from my dream-world…
Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak
In Middlesex too the brand names come thick and fast as he writes of Elaine going off to work:
Well-cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,
Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green
Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,
Delicately drowns in Drene.
Fair Elaine, the bobby-soxer,
Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa… (From A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)
And on to Kentish Town and barking dogs
And costers’ carts and crowded grocers’ shops
And Daniels’ store, the local Selfridges,
The Bon Marché, the Electric Palace…. (From Summoned by Bells)
While none of this is laugh-out-loud funny, Betjeman’s use of everyday names brings out a wry smile because of their very unexpectedness in poetry.
Social niceties come within his purview too. In How To Get On In Society he mocks lower-middle class pretentiousness over afternoon tea:
Phone for the fish-knives, Norman,
As Cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.
Milk then and just as it comes, dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m spoiling the doileys
With afternoon teacakes and scones. (From A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954)
Class awareness emerges often in Betjeman’s poems, especially in those that touch upon religious faith. His own faith has been a matter of some dispute: while he loves the enfolding warmth of Christianity it is uncertain whether he actually believes it. Although he loves churches, does he prefer places of worship to worship itself? I am inclined to think he does, but you should read him and decide for yourself. On clergymen can be especially funny. His leanings mark Betjeman out as High Church, so it is generally Low Church people who walk the plank, as in the second stanza below, from Distant View of a Provincial Town.
…St. Mary’s where the Rector preached
In such a jolly, friendly way
On cricket, football, things that reached
The simple life of every day.
And that United Benefice
With entrance permanently locked,
How Gothic grey and sad it is
Since Mr Grogley was unfrocked! Continual Dew, 1937)
And how does Betjeman write about women? He deals hardly at all with romantic or sexual feelings, but he makes plain repeatedly that the women who attract him are sturdy and sporty – and dominate him. Try A Subaltern’s Love Song:
Miss J Hunter Dunn, Miss J Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament, you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn. (New Bats in Old Belfries, 1945)
Elsewhere he writes in praise of meaty female thighs and of his tennis racquet being pressed submissively against a female breast. His apparent obsessiveness with masculine women has led some to speculate that Betjeman may have been mildly bisexual, repressing his penchant in real life but letting it off the lead in his poetry.
As to poetic technique, Betjeman is for the most part a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. Almost all of his poems are in rhyme (Summoned by Bells is the major exception) and he uses the simplest of metre – the iambic – in lines of six, eight or ten syllables. His outward simplicity (though simplicity is often hard to achieve) makes his verse easy to comprehend and easy to memorise. When he does deviate from standard technique, he reveals arresting but always intelligible cleverness.
I find it hard to sum up my admiration for Betjeman in a snappy one-liner. I will say simply this: if, in my dying moments, I am lucky enough hear music in my head, I hope it will be Schubert, and if it is poetry, I hope it will be Betjeman.
By and large, Betjeman is not well served by local libraries (philistine councillors?). NYCC holds a small number of Betjeman selections in book form, and one copy of an audio CD containing his complete poetry except Summoned by Bells. I don’t recommend the CD because in my view the readers are not up to much. In any event, if you want poetry, I suggest you don’t borrow it but buy it, then keep returning to it. So, I have some purchases to suggest.
The three must-have volumes are Collected Poems, Summoned by Bells, and Trains and Buttered Toast. With these you have almost the entirety of Betjeman’s output. I would urge you also to buy A. N. Wilson’s excellent biography, entitled simply Betjeman. Here are details of the books, with typical retail prices:
Collected Poems, John Murray, first published 1958, most recently 2001 (£7)
Summoned by Bells, John Murray, first published 1960 (£7)
Trains and Buttered Toast, ed. Stephen Games, John Murray, 2006 (£7)
Betjeman, A. N. Wilson, Arrow Books, 2006 (£9)
To see Betjeman at work, go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p025jt33 for a short list of Betjeman’s TV appearances, though be warned that you may have to fiddle around with iPlayer to get them. His TV performances are easier to find on DVD from Amazon and other on-line retailers, though they are not cheap. My suggested best buy is a boxed set of four from Amazon at £22. It is hard to obtain the BBC’s sound recordings of Betjeman’s voice but, again, if you search Amazon and other on-line retailers you will find good collections on CD – and they are a lot less expensive than the DVDs, generally between £7 and £10.
Bob Young, March 2021