Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

“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

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
Show Hide image

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist