Youth and age

John Betjeman: poems from the Forties

The future poet laureate was a surprising contributor to the

Youth and Age on Beaulieu River, Hants (1945)

Early sun on Beaulieu water
Lights the undersides of oaks,
Clumps of leaves it floods and
All transparent glow the branches
Which the double sunlight soaks;
And to her craft on Beaulieu water
Clemency the General's daughter
Pulls across with even strokes.

Schoolboy sure she is this morning;
Soon her sharpie's rigg'd and free.
Cool beneath a garden awning
Mrs Fairclough sipping tea
And raising large long-distance glasses
As the little sharpie passes,
Sighs our sailor girl to see:

Tulip figure, so appealing,

Oval face, so serious-eyed,

Tree-roots pass'd and muddy beaches,

On to huge and lake-like reaches

Soft and sun-warm, see her glide,

Slacks the slim young limbs


Sun-brown arm the tiller feeling,

Before the wind and with the tide.

Evening light will bring the water,

Day-long sun will burst the bud,

Clemency, the General's daughter

Will return upon the flood.

But the older woman only

Knows the ebb tide leaves her lonely.

With the shining fields of mud.

Indoor Games Near Newbury (1947)

[Fired by the imitations of his style on our competition page last week Mr Betjeman contributes his own poem on the same subject.]

In among the silver birches winding ways

of tarmac wander

And the sighs to Bussock Bottom, Tussock

Wood and Windy Brake,

Gabled lodges, tile-hung churches, catch the

lights of our Lagonda

As we drive to Wendy's party, lemon curd

and Christmas cake.

Rich the makes of motor whirring, past the

pine-plantation purring

Come up Hupmobile, Delage!

Short the way your chauffeurs travel, crunching

over private gravel

Each from out his warm garage.

Oh but Wendy, when the carpet yielded to my

indoor pumps

There you stood, your gold hair streaming,

handsome in the hall-light gleaming

There you looked and there you led me off into

the game of clumps

Then the new Victrola playing and your funny

uncle saying

"Choose your partners for a fox-trot! Dance

until it's tea o'clock!"

"Come on young 'uns, foot it featly!" Was it

chance that paired us neatly,

I, who loved you so completely,

You, who pressed me closely to you, hard

against your party frock?

"Meet me when you've finished eating!" So

we met and no one found us.

Oh that dark and furry cupboard while the rest

played hide and seek!

Holding hands our two hearts beating in the

bedroom silence round us,

Holding hands and hardly hearing sudden

footstep, thud and shriek.

Love that lay too deep for kissing - "Where is

Wendy? Wendy's missing!"

Love so pure it had to end,

Love so strong that I was frighten'd when you

gripped my fingers tight and

Hugging, whispered "I'm your friend."

Good-bye Wendy! Send the fairies, pinewood

elf and larch tree gnome,

Spingle-spangled stars are peeping at the lush

Lagonda creeping

Down the winding ways of tarmac to the leaded

lights of home.

There, among the silver birches, all the bells of

all the churches

Sounded in the bath waste running out into the frosty air.

Wendy speeded my undressing, Wendy is the

sheet's caressing

Wendy bending gives a blessing,

Holds me as I drift to dreamland, warm inside my


Parliament Hill Fields (1940)

Rumbling under blackened girders, Midland, bound

for Cricklewood,

Puffed its sulphur to the sunset where that Land of

Laundries stood.

Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go,

Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington,

Sells, Dale and Co,

Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the

lines below.

When the Bon Marché was shuttered, when the feet

were hot and tired,

Outside Charrington's we waited, by the "STOP HERE


Launched aboard the shopping basket, sat precipitately


Rocked past Zwanziger the Baker's, and the terrace

blackish brown,

And the Anglo, Anglo-Norman Parish Church of

Kentish Town,

Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,

Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble-hanging plane.

Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-

speckled spire,

Eighteen-sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire

Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine

French-window fire.

Oh the after tram-ride quiet, when we heard, a mile beyond,

Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by

Highgate Pond.

Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown;

And my childish wave of pity, seeing children

carrying down

Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of

Kentish Town.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits