I am sitting in the London Library as I write this. I am wearing Rafael Nadal tennis shorts, which come below the knee. Obviously, I look ridiculous. But this is the role of the middle-class, middle-aged English male, to feel slightly out of time, out of kilter, with the world around him. Sometimes down in Rock I see middle-aged Englishmen in their holiday gear, capacious navy-blue shorts or those faded pinkish trousers they wear for golf, always topped with a polo shirt, and it is clear to me that the English seaside has a liberating effect on these people: in a rather crabbed English fashion, they are letting their hair down. It’s odd, because most of the population has long ago learned to chill; it has no fears about looking absurd or being suburban or talking estuary English or driving a large car or wearing a saggy t-shirt. But no, the legacy of Betjeman lives on, the hyper- sensitivity to bad taste, ersatz architecture, flashiness, foreignness, accents, conifers and litter.
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that this is Betjeman’s centenary; he was born in August l906 in London suburbia. His poems, his memoirs, his life, his radio talks have all been collected and reissued, from a thumping one-volume edition of Bevis Hillier’s gargantuan biography to a facsimile edition of Archie and the Strict Baptists, Betjeman’s only children’s book which he illustrated himself (reproduced below).
Rather like Betjeman in his favourite rock pools around Greenaway and Daymer, I have been wading around in this collection. After this trawl, two things strike me most strongly about Betjeman; he had a very modest talent yet he was — at his best — a considerable poet who touched millions. How can these two facts be reconciled? I think the answer is this: there is in Englishness a kind of aversion to intellect for its own sake and a belief that nostalgia is a life-force, where the usual view of nostalgia in the universities is that it is a form of delusion, a deliberate attempt to avoid reality. When benighted John Major did his Betjemanesque evocation of spinsters on bicycles and warm beer or whatever it was, he was derided because it was bogus. But Betjeman at his best, both in his poetry and less frequently in his radio talks, went straight to the heart of the sense of a lost golden age. For me the Cornish poems, for instance ‘Trebetherick’, will live on. And the fact that he often disclaimed any political or intellectual understanding was calculated to appeal to a wide audience; his comment about Henry Newbolt is typical: ‘Newbolt has suffered amongst literary men because he has never been hard to understand.’
In his excellent introduction to Trains and Buttered Toast, a selection from Betjeman’s 300 radio talks, Stephen Games suggests that Betjeman was an outsider at Oxford; yet the fact is he was very much part of what in retrospect can be seen as a defining era. He and Penelope were the subject of a number of Maurice Bowra’s most scabrous poems, surely a great honour. But Bowra also once wrote to Betjeman saying that of all their crowd only he, Betjeman, had not frittered away his talent. His time at Oxford is important because, although he didn’t get a degree and although he was troubled by a sense of his social inferiority, it was Oxford which set up a very productive tension in him — the feeling that somehow, socially and aesthetically, England’s best years were already behind it: ‘we have emerged out of civilisation into barbarism.’
In his centenary year, in this plethora of new editions and collections, it is possible to see very clearly the three great themes of Betjeman’s life, which he himself described in 1958 as the love of English scenery, the love of tall women (‘Pam, I adore you, Pam you great big mountainous sports girl’), and the fear of death. His love of scenery is his most enduring quality. It is no exaggeration to say that he succeeded in his public appearances and poetry in encouraging the English to value what he valued, the seaside, England’s 20,000 churches, the joys of Victorian architecture, about which he was profoundly knowledgeable, the liturgy and eccentricities of the Anglican Church, the appreciation of old buildings and countryside. There are also plenty of examples of his loathing of ordinary people who did not ‘pay a proper respect to the past’. In one of his radio talks of 1949 he says, ‘In one horrible car like a sausage made of black plastic, a fleshy couple had the wireless on and read newspapers. They represent a type of visitor [to the Isle of Wight] who’ll not be listening to this talk.’ Although he professed to love suburbs, he hated suburbanisation and conifers and businessmen. But he also decided that the war had awoken his wits and made him more aware of ordinary people; manners had improved, class-barriers were crumbling.
Reading the radio talks and the poems together, I get the sense of a man who longed to be living in a world that was always just out of reach, but also in a more infantile world, ‘safe in a world of trains and buttered toast/Where things inanimate could feel and think’. His poem about Archibald, his beloved teddy bear, ends with this stanza:
And if an analyst one day
Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
It speaks of his deepest fears and longings and guilt. He was a troubled man, troubled by his social status, his baldness, his ‘green’ skin and by his longing for tall girls who would squeeze him in their tennis racquet presses. His confessions of anti-intellectualism — ‘my poems are of no interest to thinking people’ — his sly humour and his deep love of Englishness made him the nation’s teddy bear — that necessary figure — when in truth he was a conservative radical animated by his sense of being out of time.
The Best Loved Poems of John Betjeman, foreword by Barry Humphries (John Murray, £9.99)
John Betjeman: Collected Poems, foreword by Andrew Motion (John Murray, £12.99)
Trains and Buttered Toast edited by Stephen Games (John Murray, £14.99)
The Little Book of Betjeman by Peter Gammond (Guidon, £9.99)
Archie and the Strict Baptists by John Betjeman (Long Barn Books, limited facsimile edition, £50)
John Betjeman: The Biography by Bevis Hillier (John Murray, £18.99)
For Betjeman-related events and memorabilia see www.johnbetjeman.com