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).
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.’
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
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)
For Betjeman-related events and memorabilia see www.johnbetjeman.com