The legacy of John Betjeman – and the consolation of humour in old age

What is the quickest way to start a punch-up between two British literary critics?

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“The quickest way to start a punch-up between two British literary critics,” Philip Larkin suggested, “is to ask their opinion of the poems of John Betjeman.” I know what he means. In 1960, I bought Summoned by Bells, Betjeman’s verse autobiography, and I placed the hard- back proudly on the bookshelf in my under- graduate rooms. Everyone who came in pointed at it and laughed.

“Betjeman?”

“Yes.”

“John Bet-je-man?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not serious? Phone for the fish knives, Norman.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not saying he’s any good?”

“I think he…”

“For God’s sake, Jonathan, he’s a joke.”

“Is he? You think so?”         

After a week of this, I took down Summoned by Bells and stuffed it in a drawer, under my socks and underpants, where even I couldn’t see it. It was that embarrassing.

For most of my life I have been “on” Betjeman, if mostly undercover. A few years ago in Cornwall, sitting in the St Enodoc churchyard where he is buried (near the lychgate), I started to reread his collected poems, which led me to his letters and finally to the biographies. Out of this long absorption came two plays, but I always knew who I wanted as Betjeman, and that was Benjamin Whitrow.

Ben “got” Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and he was the best Justice Shallow ever in Henry IV Part II, and I knew, if anyone could, he would be Betjeman. He would be funny, moving, vulnerable, understated and mischievous: he allows the line and he steals up on you. To my delight, and to his, late in September we happily met up in BBC Maida Vale Studios to record the plays for radio.

****

Read anything good lately? What a great start to a conversation that is, even a chat-up line, and what a simple move towards the intimacy that two imaginations and a shared hinterland can bring.

Though it is often taken as a disparaging phrase, you could say I have led a bookish life. Not that it feels like that: it feels much more like falling in love over and over again. One day, without consciously looking for her, you come across a writer new to you, and suddenly everything is different.

You catch her eye, you hear her voice, you start to circle the table on which she lies, even the shelf on which she sits, and you reach out. Yes, you like her. Yes, she’s got it. And in no time at all, back you go to the same writer. You want more, she shakes you up, you want to see her again, the way the sun lights up the sky. She speaks to you like no one else. You want to be with her on the train, on the bus, in bed.

****

The other night, I went to a lecture by Jeanette Winterson. It was uplifting. She talked of her life as an adopted child, the violent domestic clashes, her refuge in her public library in Accrington, her days at Oxford, her sexuality and much more. But time and again she returned to books, books, books, and then she read from her memoir.

She did all this without once looking up at a screen, and without resorting to PowerPoint. Dressed in black, she walked onstage and stood there and spoke without a note for over an hour. She held us as easily and naturally as she held the book in her fingers. She was profound and witty, serious and playful, and you felt the full force of her extraordinary mind. What an example to the world of teaching! I am still cheering.

****

As well as the collected Betjeman, I have been reading someone on whom the literary critics agree. I am taking on, for the first time, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. As a lifelong English teacher you might think this a bit late, and it is, but I do mean the whole bang lot. Some plays I tap into straight away, such as The Merchant of Venice and Henry V, while others are clearly great but somehow slip through my fingers, such as Measure for Measure and The Tempest.

When I was young I was all for tragedy. I looked down on comedy and particularly on musical “shows”, where you were obliged to leave your brain in the foyer, yet recently I sat watching Mamma Mia! on TV and singing along to the words at the bottom of the screen. O, what a fall was there, as Mark Antony said over Caesar’s corpse. But as there is now less time left I am looking, in Betjeman’s phrase, for the bonus of laughter.

The edition of Shakespeare I’m using is a single volume with double-column format, coming in at 1,380 pages, which is in effect 2,760 pages. The trouble is I fell asleep the other night while reading Henry VI Part III and woke up at 2am, dazed and disorientated, with the book on my face. If it had been a rugby match I would have been taken off for a concussion assessment.

****

All was going well in the Maida Vale Studios in late September, and we were three-quarters of the way through recording the Betjeman plays, when I had a call at 11pm saying that Ben Whitrow had had a fall at home. The next day, 28 September, he died. We met in the green room, shocked almost beyond words. Yesterday Ben was there, right there, with us. Today he was gone.

This week we gather again, in the same studio, to complete the second play. Bruce Young, the director, has reordered the scenes so that it works when Robert Bathurst takes over being Ben being Betjeman.

It feels as right as it could be. Ben and Robert were friends. Indeed, they played golf together on the St Enodoc course, where Betjeman, too, occasionally played, and they liked to quote bits of his poems at each other, only a few shots from the churchyard where he lies. Near the lychgate. 

“Mr Betjeman’s Class” and “Mr Betjeman Regrets” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day and Boxing Day

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world