Only if you have spent the last few months living in a remote corner of Chad will you not have noticed that this year marks the centenary of Sir John Betjeman’s birth. We have already seen telly programmes, church restoration appeals, commemorative CDs of his readings, Cornish cliff walks and special outings on West Country railways in honour of a man whose genius consisted, as the late Sir Peter Parker put it, in ‘an infinite capacity for taking trains’.
Now come two new lives: A. N. Wilson’s snappy and stylish short biography, and a still hefty one-volume boiling-down of Bevis Hillier’s socking three-volume authorised life. Though it’s a matter for gossip more than scholarship, I should mention here that the authors seem cordially to hate one another, and have exchanged a fabulously childish series of insults in print. Why, I don’t know, but it makes reviewing them alongside each other a fraught project, particularly as I have reason to feel warmly towards both. It’s a huge relief to be able to report, without any feeling of compromise or dishonesty, that both books are terrific.
The popular image of Betjeman is a sort of unfrocked Anglican vicar, bicycling genially from church to church, conceiving whimsical crushes on stout-thighed county gels, and erupting occasionally into volcanic bursts of laughter. As the cliché, coined by a headline writer on the Times, had it, he was ‘By Appointment: Teddy Bear to the Nation’.
He was no teddy bear. Utterly terrified of many things (social humiliation, bad reviews, death); capable of great vanity; shy, yet a compulsive show-off; benighted by religious doubt; frightened, I suspect, of for one moment standing still; implacably opposed to concrete lamp-posts . . . he was a complex character and an uneasy one, with a near-bottomless need to be loved. Kind, humorous and in his way very brave, he managed, at any rate, to supply that need.
Betjeman’s standing as a poet remains a matter for debate. Was he a major minor poet, or a minor major poet? Or was he no good at all? Cromwellian modernists pretty much hated him from the get-go, and a couple took the chance to put the boot in after his death. The music of his poems — Victorian, often with a more or less explicit hint of Hymns Ancient and Modern in the mix — affrighted them; as did the subject matter, the ease of comprehension and, you have to suspect, his vast popularity.
Things seem to have settled down somewhat. It’s now more possible to pay attention to his extreme prosodic artfulness, and the very downbeat but distinct admixture of agony with gaiety that characterises his best stuff. A judgment frequently repeated is that he was a limited poet, but one entirely successful within those limitations: ‘Auden sets himself a big test, and fails; Betjeman a lesser test, and passes it.’
More subtly, he has been described as having had a ‘whim of iron’, and charged with ‘mischievous silliness’. His elegiac strand was more than nostalgia: ‘Dear old, bloody old England/ Of telegraph poles and tin/ Seemingly so indifferent/ And with so little soul to win.’ His celebratory work, likewise, was seldom untroubled by sadness. Describing his themes in an interview, Betjeman said, ‘You’re all alone, you fall in love, you’ve got to die.’
Neither Wilson’s nor Hillier’s is a properly critical biography, though one of Hillier’s best chapters deals with the drafting of Summoned by Bells. (It hints, incidentally, that Betjeman’s ear was not faultless. In manuscript, Betjeman had ‘My father, proffering me half a crown’. Tom Driberg suggested, ‘As he proffered half a crown’. Betjeman’s final version read, ‘My father, handing to me half-a-crown.’ Driberg’s still seems to me to scan better than either of Betjeman’s.)
After a slightly high-camp introduction (a lot of Wallace Arnoldish wordplay), Hillier — whose three volumes have been brilliantly condensed by his editor at Murray’s, Peter James — produces a stately and yet entirely absorbing account of Betjeman’s career from first to last; from his bullied schooldays (his Germanic then name, Betjemann, was subject to schoolyard taunts) and unhappy relationship with his cabinet-maker father, through his burgeoning career and wide range of public activities. (For someone professedly idle, he did a lot.) It is studded with fascinating little things, many of them the things that most gainsay his cuddliness (I loved, for example, his description of Louis MacNeice, a Marlborough and Oxford contemporary, as ‘that fucking little Oxford aesthete who lives near Belfast’). All you need to know is there — or seems to be.
But, compendious as Hillier is even in this single volume, he has missed tricks. Wilson covers some important lacunae, and his work contains several mini-scoops. There is really interesting and unexpected material, for example, on Betjeman’s friendship with R. S. Thomas. You’d think Betjeman would be everything that Thomas would hate: gamesome where Thomas was austere, suburban and English where Thomas was windswept and Welsh. Yet the two were more similar in background than Thomas would care to admit, and more alike in doubt. They exchanged letters, and Betjeman contributed the introduction to Thomas’s first collection.
Hillier is on first-name terms with his subject; Wilson is not. His Betjeman is a darker one, and more selfish. His book zeroes in on Betjeman’s struggles with his faith, which he places at the dead centre of the life and work, and on his family difficulties, and does so with extraordinary imaginative sympathy.
The emotional cost of Betjeman’s long and all but institutionalised affair with Elizabeth Cavendish (she nursed him through his Parkinson’s disease) is muted in Hillier. It screams from the pages of Wilson — not least because he quotes extensively from his wife Penelope Chetwode’s letters. Ordinarily, they exchanged correspondence in whimsically misspelt ‘Plymmie-ese’ (among his nicknames for her was ‘Plymstone’), and its survival in even her angriest letters is especially painful — you can see a deep and old love, only partially smashed up.
I shall give you SIX MONTHS IN WHICH TO GET OUT OF YOUR CAVENDISH ENTANGLEMENTS and fulfil your various commitments in London after which you must chuck up the flat and Sec and live BETWEEN HERE AND CORNWALL [she wrote in 1956]. I WILL TAKE NO HALF MEASURES. I AM FED UP WITH YOUR DIVIDED LIFE AND COMPLETELY FALSE SET OF VALUES. Have the GUTS to tell your smart friends that you are tired of the rush and worry of London and that you are clearing out and WISH TO BE LEFT ALONE. [. . .] I’M DAMNED if I am going on with you in this perpetual dichotomy with insomnia, hysterical nerves, fear of losing your reputation etc etc. We have only got another 20 years [. . .] and it is simply not worth being as MISERABLE AS YOU ARE OWING TO PHOBIAS LISTED ABOVE. Take it or leave it. ELIZABETH OR ME. Yewrs very truly Plymstoine.
Betjeman, though, was unable to choose, and Penelope didn’t act on her ultimatum.
The other great casualty was Betjeman’s son Paul, known through his childhood as ‘the Powlie’ or, teasingly but painfully, as ‘It’. His relationship with John was, in some ways, a yet fiercer recapitulation of John’s angry and resentful relationship with his own father, Ernest. The estrangement was deep, exacerbated by Paul’s move to the United States and conversion to Mormonism, and lasted to the end of Betjeman’s life. Wilson managed to interview Paul Betjeman in the course of his research and the hurt still seems fresh.
I asked Paul whether he had felt unappreciated; whether he was angry with John and Penelope for being bad parents. His face contorted as he recalled it all. ‘Calling me It. That . . . I minded so much about that. I could not even articulate it to myself for years. It was not a question of them not appreciating me. It wasn’t a question . . . he wanted to keep me down.’ He forced his palm against the arm of his chair so forcefully that he might have broken it. ‘Down. That is where he wanted me.’
Hillier ends with Betjeman’s death and his rain-swept funeral; Wilson, perhaps tellingly, with Penelope’s, in the course of a longed for trip to the Himalayas in search of temples. She was cremated in an improvised Christian/Hindu ceremony, and her ashes were mingled with flower petals and scattered in the Kulu Valley. The end of a long struggle. Both books had me sniffling.
Formidably researched, sympathetic and very well written, Hillier’s is the better of two extremely good books because it is the fuller portrait. But it is not complete. Wilson’s, though narrower, is also essential. His focus on the struggles he sees as the core of Betjeman’s poetry and his life is convincing, and its expression heartfelt. Anyone who cares about Betjeman should have both volumes on the shelf — even if, until such time as the two authors manage to patch it up, they have to be separated by some sort of demilitarised zone. A copy of Summoned by Bells should do the trick.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 19, 2006