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Poetic valediction

I’m glad Radio Four had the good sense to mark the centenary of the birth of John Betjeman

30 August 2006

5:31 PM

30 August 2006

5:31 PM

It is with great sadness that we heard of the sudden death of Michael Vestey on Friday. For more than ten years, he had been The Spectator’s radio critic — indeed the first and only one. His column was perceptive, authoritative, witty, sometimes caustic and opinionated, but always immensely readable. We asked him to file his column early this week because of the Bank Holiday and, professional to the last, he did. It follows below. Michael will be much missed.

I’m glad Radio Four had the good sense to mark the centenary of the birth of John Betjeman as I feared the BBC might overlook it. But the network did and some fine programmes have resulted. The one I liked most was Doubts and Demons: The Inner John Betjeman (Monday), presented by A.N. Wilson, whose new biography of the poet has just been published. I also enjoyed Miles Kington’s Archive Hour: Betjeman the Broadcaster (Monday), with examples from his prolific broadcasting years.

Wilson talked to all the relevant people, except Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of a Duke of Devonshire, who was for many years his mistress (I suppose you could say) while he was married to Penelope Chetwode, daughter of a former field marshal. I would have liked to have heard from her as Betjeman was a man of so many contradictions, insecurities and self-doubt that I dare say she knew him better than anyone still alive. There were some amusing anecdotes. Betjeman’s daughter Candida Lycett Green told the story of how Penelope persuaded him to have riding lessons near his home at Uffington near Oxford and would make sure that he rode off with the riding instructor. As soon as he was out of sight, Betjeman and his tutor, a Joy Bassett, would dismount and read poetry to each other. When Penelope found out, she was furious and put a stop to it. The rows were legendary. Cyril and Jean Connolly went  to stay and were sitting in the bath together when Betjeman and his wife burst in and started kicking each other around. The rows were, it seems, very physical.

Betjeman found comfort from his inner demons with Archie, his childhood teddy bear, which he was still clutching when he died in Cornwall in 1984. Penelope once outraged him by throwing Archie out of the sitting-room window. The bear’s full name was Archibald Ormsby-Gore for some reason which wasn’t made clear, but Candida told Wilson that her father felt insecure when he wasn’t around. The bear seems to have been some sort of alter ego, a strict Baptist who nursed pro-Hitler views while the poet was a wishy-washy Conservative High Anglican. Wilson put one of Betjeman’s insecurities beautifully, saying, ‘He was both class- conscious and in love with the lower-middle class he left behind. He was the poet of the petit-bourgeois but he didn’t want to be petit-bourgeois himself.’ After Marlborough he went to Magdalene, where Wilson thought he fell in love with the aristocracy, the Mitfords, and so on. Debo Devonshire remembered what she called his ‘shilling trousers from the WI stall’, which he wore all the time.

His charm and ability to make people laugh were what endeared him to many. I fell victim to it myself when in his last years I went to interview him for the PM programme on Radio Four, which then still did interviews about the arts. He’d just published his slim volume A Nip in the Air which he inscribed flatteringly and self-deprecatingly, ‘To Michael Vestey, prize interviewer, from John Betjeman, interviewee third class.’ Even then he was rather frail with Parkinson’s disease. I got him to read a couple of the poems, one of which was ‘Executive’, the first four lines of which read: ‘I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;/ I have a Slimline briefcase and use the firm’s Cortina./ In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill/ The maîtres d’hôtel all know me well and let me sign the bill.’

One of his great gifts was using the right place-names. One can’t think why but Burgess Hill seems perfect. After 45 minutes in his presence I ended up adoring him, though we never met again.

Eddie Mirzoeff, the brilliant television producer who with Betjeman made Metroland, an affectionate celebration of the London suburbs (which I would very much like to see again), described him as a consummate actor. He and Elizabeth Cavendish loved Coronation Street and would watch it together, which is a kind of joke in itself: the poet laureate avidly following a soap. When they were filming Betjeman would bring Archie with him and Mirzoeff became accustomed to asking, ‘How’s Archie today?’ Sometimes he’d bring a stuffed elephant and the film crew would see that as a sign that it was a bad day.

Betjeman struck up a friendship with John Osborne and particularly identified with Osborne’s character Bill Maitland, the tortured lawyer in his play Inadmissible Evidence. Both he and Osborne had lower- middle-class origins and nursed class resentments and feared being found out as not having great talents. In my view Betjeman was a great poet, something that Simon Heffer rejected on the Today programme last week. He cited T.S. Eliot (who actually taught Betjeman), but you need a classical education to understand all Eliot’s lines. Betjeman, however, is understood by all and was so utterly original in creating his unique style, that he really does stand as a great poet.

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