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7 June 2022

From the NS archive: Supplier of Poetry

22 November 1974: The profundity and philosophy of John Betjeman.

By Clive James

John Betjeman, who was poet laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, has a reputation as a purveyor of nostalgic English whimsy and clichés. In 1974, however, Clive James saw Betjeman, who was 68 at the time, as a more profound poet than he was given credit for. Reviewing Betjeman’s latest collection, “A Nip in the Air”, James thought the poems recording the disappearing social order were noble rather than hackneyed and that the poet had “transmuted a fleeting reality into a tangible fiction during the moment of its vanishing, and when the vanishing is completed will be easily seen to have performed a service”. Betjeman’s poems lamenting the loss of the old England were born of anxieties, believed James: “He fears the loss of his life as he feared the loss of his way of life – he feels unprotected.” And so he wrote verse.

Collections of John Betjeman’s verse don’t change, they merely become more appropriate. Betjeman poems have always watched the old England die, the self age, believed fearlessly in the gentle virtues and tremulously in salvation. Neither his earlier nor his later work has required to be falsified in order to achieve such remarkable consistency. Betjeman was simply born old, thereby ruling out the prospect of immaturity; or else is still infantile, with maturity never to arrive; or perhaps both. The coexistence of sage and toddler keeps predictability at bay.

The only risk he has run as an artist is of being repetitive. Everything in A Nip in the Air has occurred before. But still the ambiguities linger, making the best loved and most cuddly of Poets Laureate a permanent oddball. Familiarity is deceptive, although very familiar. Really he was already By Appointment in the Thirties, as in “Death of King George V” from Continual Dew: “Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe/ Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky…” While Edward landed hatless from the air on the runway hemmed in by a new suburb. Material change threatened the fruitful continuities. The voice of the old middle class was calling on the aristocracy to conserve its ways, and still is: the poems to Charles and Anne in this volume were written by a born monarchist, not a convert.

The disappearing social order whose details he so lovingly records was the only certain good. Modernism holds no place for its kind. It would be – well, it is – a message acceptable to any thinking Tory. Opportunistic rapacity has done for the old order. But it is only lately, at the eleventh hour, that Betjeman has begun to examine the possibility of the old middle class and the new rapists being close kin.

It would be a subversive conclusion to most of what he has always said, so it is no surprise that the conclusion is not quite reached. But “County” is still an unusually abrasive effort: “God save me from the Porkers,/ God save me from their sons/ their noisy tweedy sisters/ Who follow with the guns…”. Porker is a faux-bonhomme and dull with it, evading taxes while blasting the pheasants. He is all pedigree and purse (and his womenfolk are worse). The Porkers set a bad example to the new rich. As the poet waxes wroth, the reader waxes stunned: it is unusual to find that the Porkers are not themselves new. For destruction to emanate from somewhere in the poet’s own background is an odd concession from Betjeman. Perhaps the Porkers, without being really new, are yet newish. Anyway, the matter is not pursued beyond that, and for most of the volume the villains are the planners and communicators we have come to know and loathe.

In “Executive” the hero is a peach of his genus. Essentially he integrates, and is basically viable. He does some “mild developing” on the side. And Rex, the PRO of “Shattered Image”, is a trapped paedophile who finds his fellow smoothies dumping him. The new, usurping middle class doesn’t pull together except for advantage. They find their unity in legalised vandalism, creating nothing but a wilderness, in which the disinherited working class aimlessly sheds litter. The caravans of the milling plebs jam the shoreline and the wrappings of their potato crisps non-biodegradably choke the surf. “Let us keep what is left of the London we knew,” Betjeman sighs in “Meditation on a Constable Picture”, but by now he is more resigned than desperate.

We remember that in his superlative television programme on Metroland he had already half-waved his goodbye to England. Much of the energy has gone out of his theme: a poignant mark of the enemy’s triumph. But for the greater part of his creative life the urge to preserve supplied him with his most important creative impulse. To him and the few writers in his league, the onset of chaos meant the necessity of turning recollection into art. For some time yet it will be an act of critical daring to call Betjeman or Osbert Lancaster anything more lofty than exquisite, but in fact they have transmuted a fleeting reality into a tangible fiction during the moment of its vanishing, and when the vanishing is completed will be easily seen to have performed a service.

Not that they didn’t enjoy performing it. The younger Betjeman elegantly lamented an old building even when it was still upright. In “On Seeing An Old Poet In The Cafe Royal” from Old Lights for New Chancels he wept delightedly for smells gone by – “Scent of Tutti-Frutti-Sen-Sen/ And cheroots upon the floor”. But apart from the lamps, not much about the place had changed. It was just that the people were gone. Betjeman would still have been nostalgic if not a single gasolier had ever been uprooted anywhere in the realm. He is cast back neurotically. His macaronic threnodies, crowded with the names of things remembered, are charms, like the coincidental gatherings of characters in Anthony Powell.

Self-revelation has come slowly in Betjeman’s work and there are still many puzzles for those of us not in the know. But in the aggregate of his lyrics – and more clearly than in the avowedly autobiographical Summoned by Bells – we can by now clearly see the bitter heritage of his early traumata. Whatever the wounds were, they left him nuzzling his woolly bear for ever, while yearning for that most engulfing of all women, the Betjeman Girl.

She survives in this new book as Laurelie Williams, Queen of the Hunt Ball, but her strapping reign of glory started early on. In Old Lights for New Chancels she was Pam, the “great big mountainous sports girl” with the hairy arms, or else Myfanwy, the bikey, dikey Valkyrie, “chum to the weak”. In New Bats in Old Belfries she was Joan Hunter Dunn, the horny-handed tennis-girl of “A Subaltern’s Love-song”, who returned, still in those redolent white shorts, as Bonzo Trouncer in Selected Poems. In A Few Late Chrysanthemums she was equipped with “the strongest legs in Pontefract” and made yet another appearance as a tennis champ – “The Olympic Girl” who stared down from a great height and whose racket he would like to have been, so as “‘to be press’d/ With hard excitement to her breast'”. (Of girl cyclists he is on record as desiring to be the saddle.) All this is poised, distanced, suave and funny, but you can see very clearly the regressive hurt.

“You’re to be booted. Hold him steady, chaps!” The childhood memory was one of the late chrysanthemums. He was slow to take revenge, never quite realising that it was his class-mates, in both senses, who had a mission to rip up his world. Betjeman puzzled over the inscrutable doings of the hoi polloi formiculating in “the denser suburbs” but never faced the genuine paradox of a civilised order hastening its own ruin. He identified himself with a class at a time when it was not yet fully clear that the class would fail to identify itself with him. They would buy his books while tearing down anything beautiful that stood in their way. Betjeman’s audience are the developers.

He was, from the beginning, in a historical fix. From Selected Poems onwards, the apocalypse began to roll in – the sea, which will send its waves for centuries to come, “when England is not England”. The sea, “consolingly disastrous”, recurred in his poetry all through the Fifties and is loud in this volume, rustling with campers’ jetsam. Betjeman doesn’t see a future: he is elegiac to the end of the line – elegiac where his admirer Larkin is tragic, since at least Betjeman is longing for an existence he once led. The past is gone and the future is not worth having – it would be a hell of a message if message were all there was. But the poetry is a cornucopia of cherished things, and the pessimism is all too easily traceable to its author’s personality. He fears the loss of his life as he feared the loss of his way of life – he feels unprotected.

Death is all through this new book but it was all through the old books too, as vivid as the sadistic threats of his bent nurserymaid. He can be called light-minded only by the thick-witted, and this remains true even though the well-placed find him comforting.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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