The obsession of academic critics with differentiating “major” writers from “minor” ones, and summarily dismissing the latter, serves the interest of no one but their fellow-academics and actively harms not only those authors they deem minor, but also that large majority of the public who reads novels and poems purely for pleasure, with no scholarly or careerist motives. Within the academy, “major,” at least since the heyday of Eliot and Pound, has tended to mean “difficult”—possibly because difficulty supposes a need for expert interpretation and therefore justifies the existence of professional explicators. Kipling and Trollope, for example, so popular during the Victorian era as to have become an integral part of England’s cultural fabric, are not only ignored in modern universities but actively denigrated.
This has also been true of postwar England’s bestselling poet, John Betjeman (1906–1984). The euphony of his words, the immediacy of his images, his mastery of traditional meter and rhyme schemes, in short the pure accessibility of his work has guaranteed its exclusion from “serious” studies of twentieth-century poetry. He simply did not fit into the modernist tradition, and his hugely successful career as a television personality and expert on the sort of architecture that had hitherto been considered pure kitsch did not raise his stock in academic circles. The 1993 edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for instance, made no mention of Betjeman in all of its 1,383 pages. Neither did the 626 pages of A Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature (2001).
Technically, Betjeman did not advance beyond Tennyson, Praed, or Newbolt. For him, as Philip Larkin wrote (admiringly), “there has been no symbolism, no objective correlative, no T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, no reinvestment in myth of casing of language as gesture, no Seven Types or Some Versions …” (Larkin allowed, however, that Betjeman did have a White Goddess: “in blazer and shorts.”) His subject matter was almost aggressively retrograde; William Plomer smiled at the thought of “a new generation which is used to verse garnished with pylons and bombers and Arms for Spain and anti-Nazism and Hampstead surrealism” being “shocked by a poet who alludes to pink may, laburnum, tinned peas, cigar ends, church bells, gym shoes, deviled whitebait, hockey girls, picnics, racing-stables, and old City dining-rooms.” And what other poet of his era would seriously have applied a Wordsworthian sense of wonder and joy to an utterly banal activity, as he did in “Seaside Golf”?
it lay content
Two paces from the pin,
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most surely in.
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.
Ah! Seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
In-coming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Lark song and sea sounds in the air
And splendour, splendour everywhere.
Minor Betjeman might have been, but the poets who were his contemporaries, at least in England, thought him valuable and unique and banished the futile major/minor distinction to the irrelevance it has always deserved. To Edmund Blunden, Betjeman’s work was “of the kind which makes the question of major and minor poets seem quite academic, at least while one reads and responds.” Even Edmund Wilson, king of critics, opined in the 1950s that “Since Dylan Thomas’s death [Betjeman] is, I suppose, the best poet in England—a minor poet, perhaps, but a very, very good one.” The fact that “minor” and “best” are not mutually exclusive terms might come as a surprise to academically trained readers.
Bevis Hillier, for one, entertains no doubts as to Betjeman’s place in the canon, for he has dedicated more than twenty-five years of his life to writing a biography that is not only definitive but likely to remain so forever: it is hard to imagine anyone ever trying to top this three-volume, 1,530-page whopper. Even those who love the written word, and love Betjeman, might shy away from this doorstop. Betjeman himself suggested to Hillier that the proposed volumes would probably sell very well in old-people’s homes, and indeed one does wonder just how many people (as opposed to libraries) will buy this sequence: probably only true fanatics, sadly, so that it is doubtful whether it will win the poet many new readers.
Still, sheer volume of detail can sometimes wear down the reader’s resistance, and this is such a case: after one has read eight or nine hundred pages, why not go on forever? And when an author expends himself on this sort of leisurely history, wonderful items turn up that might never appear in a more tightly controlled narrative. Where else, for example, could one find Osbert Lancaster’s fabulous “Ode on the Wedding of Thomas Driberg, Esq., MP,” from which I will quote a stanza? (Driberg was a well-known homosexual.)
But hark, the Bishop’s on his toes
To ask if anybody knows
“Just impediment or cause.”
There follows then an awkward pause.
In every heart an anxious fear
Of what we half expect to hear.
Strike the organ! Beat the bell!
The Past is silent! All is well!
Or Sir John Drummond’s description of his backstage conversation with Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage) about the aged Betjeman’s terminal illness:
All [the talk] was a normal part of our shared concern for a much loved friend. But, though he can apparently do the voice when wearing male clothes, he cannot stop using the voice when got up as Edna, and I found it quite intolerable to be talking about the imminent death of one of my most cherished friends with this shrieking virago. I have always had more than a soft spot for Dame Edna … but in these circumstances she was too much and I excused myself apologetically.
There are countless such gems in this work. Many people are said to have known “everyone,” but in Betjeman’s case this is almost literally true, and while Hillier often gives minor figures in the poet’s life unduly thorough treatment, there is enough gold to justify most of the dross.
John Betjeman, like so many writers, both loved and hated the social milieu from which he sprang, in his case, the well-upholstered Edwardian middle class. The Betjemanns (the final, embarrassingly Germanic “n” was removed from the name by the poet himself) were unredeemedly bourgeois. Worse, they were “in trade,” albeit a luxury trade: G. Betjemann & Sons were cabinet-makers. When John’s father Ernest took over the business, its most popular item had been, surreal as this may seem, something called “the Betjemann patent tantalus,” an apparatus for locking decanters of drink away from the servants—a detail which might have come straight out of John’s favorite Diary of a Nobody. Ernest built the firm into a provider of very high-end craftsmanship that catered to Asprey’s, Harrod’s, and “the maharajah market.”
The poet spent his early childhood in semi-suburban Highgate before his upwardly mobile parents moved to Chelsea. “The Betjemanns’ stucco [Highgate] villa was about half-way up the social graph: the ideal vantage-point for gaining a nice sense of English social distinctions. Snobbery is a branch of applied sociology, and in this discipline John proved instinctually adept.” His memories of one particular children’s party are especially poignant. From “False Security”:
Can I forget my delight at the conjuring show?
And wasn’t I proud that I was the last to go?
Too overexcited and pleased with myself to know
That the words I heard my hostess’s mother employ
To a guest departing, would ever diminish my joy,
I WONDER WHERE JULIA FOUND THAT STRANGE,
RATHER COMMON LITTLE BOY?
In Highgate he soaked up the ambiance that had provided inspiration to Marvell, Coleridge, Hopkins, and Housman; at Highgate Preparatory School, one of his teachers was the young T. S. Eliot. Later he was sent as a boarder to the Dragon School in Oxford, where he came under the tutelage of the influential headmaster A. E. (“Hum”) Lynam. “Hum’s preoccupation with religion and the school services, I realize now, greatly affected me. Here was this great, but never remote and always kind man, interested in religion.” Thus began Betjeman’s life-long love affair with English churches. Thus, too, began his love for Oxford: not so much the university with its dreaming spires as the dowdy, Gothic Revival North Oxford with its “ill-paid dons, suburban gardens, petty gossip, tinned peas, toothbrushes airing on the window-sill.” (This is also the territory, some might remark, of Barbara Pym, who claimed to have been influenced more by Betjeman than by her fellow-novelists.)
Note the importance, in the above random list, of props and places almost as stage sets. Harold Acton would later call Betjeman “a genius of the genius loci, either pastoral or suburban,” and many have considered him primarily a poet of place. Betjeman objected strongly to this formulation.
I am not a pure poet of place. I bear no resemblance to Bloomfield or Clare and very little to Crabbe and only a little to Cowper but much more to him than the other three. This means to say that I write (and I know this) primarily with people in mind and relate the people to the background. When I am describing Nature, it is always with a view to the social background or the sense of Man’s impotence before the vastness of the Creator.
That is, he clearly sees and communicates the places he describes, but always with a corresponding understanding of the lives lived in these places. This quality applied equally to his professional forays into architecture. As Osbert Lancaster put it: “almost alone among contemporary writers on art, he is capable of whisking a building or a town out of the sterilized oxygen-tent in which the professional antiquarians have placed it… . He is aware not only of the Saxon mouldings round the font but also of the tin bowl from the chain stores which the churchworker has left on top.”
Betjeman knew from a very early age that he wished to be a poet, and educated himself accordingly. This may be one reason, as Hillier speculates, that his poetry is technically so old-fashioned: he learned his craft in childhood, with Victorian models, while his contemporaries began as university students, with modernism. Lord David Cecil reminded Hillier, “You have no idea how original it was for John to be writing in the style of Tennyson and other Victorians when his friends were all pastiching Eliot.” The primary poetic influence of his childhood was indeed Tennyson, and it would be fair to say that Tennyson was the primary poetic influence of his mature years as well. From “Indoor Games near Newbury”:
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.
At the age of fifteen Betjeman was sent to Marlborough, an institution Spartan even by the standards of other English public schools of the era. One of the poet’s contemporaries described it as “the most awful barbarous place, and it was extraordinary that people were willing to pay large sums of money to subject their children to it.” Full emphasis, of course, was given to the classics, with little attempt to render the study palatable—much less, as in subsequent argot, “relevant.” Beverley Nichols, who was at the school just before Betjeman, said that Greek was taught at Marlborough “as though it were not merely dead but as though it had never lived at all,” and Betjeman conceived a loathing for the Greek master, one A. R. Gidney, that he nursed for half a century and that rivaled his later great hates for his Oxford tutor, C. S. Lewis, and the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner.
The future poet Louis MacNeice was a fellow-pupil, and his memories show Betjeman as he left childhood’s chrysalis and became the “character” that would soon be let loose on the world: “John Betjeman at that time looked like a will-o’-the-wisp with Latin blood in it. His face was the colour of peasoup and his eyes were soupy too and his mouth was always twisting sideways in a mocking smile and he had a slight twist in his speech which added a tang to his mimicries, syncopating the original just as a slightly rippling sheet of water jazzes the things reflected in it. He was a brilliant mimic but also a mine of information and a triumphant misfit.”
Oxford, to which Betjeman repaired in 1925 only after twice failing the math and Latin exam required for entrance, greeted the misfit with open arms. Whenever possible he escaped the company of the uncongenially hearty C. S. Lewis and came under the benign influence—as so many of his distinguished contemporaries did—of the eccentric and iconoclastic dons Maurice Bowra and “Colonel” George Kolkhorst. Many of the friends he made there were for life: Kenneth Clark, who would employ him during the Second World War; John Sparrow, the well-known academic; the novelists Henry [Yorke] Green and Anthony Powell; the rich Edward James, who published Betjeman’s first book of poems; W. H. Auden, with whom he seems at one point to have enjoyed a brief sexual liaison; Alan Pryce-Jones, the editor and writer; the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell; the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster; the aristocrats Patrick Balfour (later Lord Kinross), Frank Pakenham (later the Earl of Longford), Billy Clonmore (later the Earl of Wicklow); and Basil, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who was killed in the war and with whom Betjeman claimed to have been more in love than with anyone else in his life.
A word on Betjeman’s sexuality: his early experiences, as with so many of his public school and university contemporaries, were homosexual. In later life, Hillier says, “John’s tastes were predominantly heterosexual, but he liked to speculate about the ‘percentage’ of homosexuality in people’s psychological make-up, including his own. He commented on a well-known Conservative politician, ‘I never realized what percent he was until I saw him pouring tea.’ His own ‘percentage’ probably remained above the average, but Alan Pryce-Jones thought that John’s occasional professions of homosexuality should not be taken too literally.” Late in life, he speculated on his tastes: “I think by nature I’m masochistic. So far as the body is concerned I prefer taking orders to giving them.” Hence his famous penchant for muscular, sporty girls, especially tennis players and cyclists. From “A Subaltern’s Love Song”:
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won.
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.
He made a bit of a joke of it (glimpsing a strapping woman one day in the Tate Gallery, he squawked to his companion, “Oh I say, wouldn’t you like to be pushed in a pram by her round Hyde Park?”), but it was real enough, proved by the fact that both his wife and his long-time mistress, different though they were, belonged to the dominatrix type.
Betjeman made a strong impression at the university (his eccentric attachment to his teddy-bear Archie, for instance, was immortalized by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited’s ill-fated Sebastian Flyte). But his academic career was not a success. His downfall, ironically, was persistent failure in Divinity, which at that time was required for a degree. How he managed to fail a subject in which he was already beginning to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge is something of a mystery. In Bowra’s opinion, “unconsciously he wished to fail. … He had no wish to take his finals, for which he had done very little work, and found instinctively a way out.” Sent down without a degree in 1928, he followed the example of countless other Oxford failures (including both Waugh and one of his creations, Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall) and betook himself to Gabbitas and Thring, scholastic agents.
He fetched up at Heddon Court, Cockfosters. While the other masters thought him a subversive influence, he was rapturously received by the boys, as one of them recalled years later.
The hitherto familiar and laborious hours of “parsing” and grammar were transformed into the sounds and usage and rhythms of words conveyed with such inspiration that sparks of understanding seemed to be struck from every single and different boy in the classroom. Few, if any, were insulated from J.B.’s electrifying and entirely communicable vision of literature.
Intimations, in short, of Betjeman’s remarkable appeal and success as a television performer and popularizer of architecture in later years. “The great thing about John,” said one of his producers, “is that he wanted you to share his love and enthusiasm.” His style of didacticism did not significantly change during the course of his life. At Heddon Court he turned the school’s high regard for games upside-down and promoted his own idols, literature and architecture. “He made it all such fun,” recalled the former student, “and so attractive, that we readily accepted his standards.”
But he never had any intention of wasting his life in an obscure boys’ school. He soon procured a job as third in command at The Architectural Review, a magazine that had a good deal of influence in the architecture world. To be anti-modernist was then akin to sacrilege, and Betjeman toed the line with the best of them, although doubts were already beginning to simmer. But he was to prove constitutionally unable to stick to any job for long. Novelty inevitably “degenerated into routine, routine into drudgery.” When Peter Quennell visited Betjeman at the Review office, he remembered a desk heaped with papers. “Among them,” said Quennell, “I saw a huge blotting-pad, evidently quite new, on which, using a sharp pencil and decorative Gothic script, he had inscribed the now familiar couplet: “I sometimes think that I should like/ To be the saddle of a bike.” Betjeman brought in clever new contributors like Waugh, Lancaster, and Billy Clonmore, but he was the world’s most unlikely apostle of modernism and when the chance came to edit county guides for a series that Shell-Mex was planning to put out, he grabbed it. The guides, when they appeared, were superb: Betjeman, again, brought in high-level contributors, including Quennell, Waugh, Paul Nash, and his new bosom friend John Piper, with whom he collaborated to produce the Shropshire volume.
Once liberated from the modernist party line, Betjeman was free to develop and indulge his real passions: Victorian and Georgian architecture, and churches. Nancy Mitford’s light novel Christmas Pudding provides a good caricature of him at this period in the campy person of Paul Fotheringay, a fey foil to the solid county characters. “John B.,” commented Waugh in his diary at about this period, “became a bore rather with Irish peers and revivalist hymns and his enthusiasm for every sort of architecture.” Betjeman and his cronies liked to make a bit of a game of their interests, choosing some inconsequential neighborhood, or suburb, or odd building and paying it mystifying homage. Waugh has given the best description of the routine, which Betjeman would develop and fine-tune over the years:
The normal process of Betjemanizing is first the undesired stop in a provincial English town, then the “discovery” there of a rather peculiar police station, circa 1880; the enquiry and identification of its architect. Further research reveals that a Methodist Chapel in another town is by the same hand. Then the hunt is up. More buildings are identified. The obscure name is uttered with a reverence befitting Bernini. The senile master is found to be alive, in distressed circumstances in a northern suburb of London. He is a “character”; he has vague, personal memories of other long dead, equally revered contemporaries. In his last years he is either rejuvenated or else driven mad to find himself the object of pilgrimage.
Betjeman’s first volume of poetry, Mount Zion (1932), and his first book of prose, Ghastly Good Taste (1933), were written at around the same time, and the poetry is just as truthful a reflection of his architectural and antiquarian interests as the prose. (Note some of the titles of the poems: “Croydon,” “Westgate-on Sea,” “For Nineteenth-Century Burials.”) It is all funny, in best Betjeman style, but those with discernment could sense his underlying seriousness and even formulate it for him: as the Country Life reviewer of Ghastly Good Taste wrote, “Behind the persiflage is his conviction that good architecture is the expression of a faith, and herein lies the originality of his approach to the old story of architecture’s history. He does not mind what the faith may be—mystical, rational, or intellectual; chapel, church, or State—but he believes fervently in the need for it. When it becomes self-conscious, art declines, and when it disappears, beauty vanishes with it, he declares.”
It was perhaps with this sense of the necessity of faith rather than any deep personal beliefs that Betjeman eventually deviated from Quakerism and chose his own religious path, that of High Anglicanism. It was Anglicanism’s historic broadness and inclusiveness that held him: “the dear old rumbling Church of England which is high, low and broad all at one … the Catholic Church of this country.” The Roman Catholic Church, with its certainties and infallibilities, distressed him. Religion and family: traditionally sources of shelter, comfort, and certitude. Yet neither was to prove such for Betjeman. Religion for him was inextricably tied up with fear—possibly the legacy of a Calvinist nanny—and Family with guilt.
Betjeman clearly wanted to marry “up”; two of his first serious girlfriends were Lady Mary St. Clair Erskine and the Honorable Pamela Mitford. His final choice was Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field-Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, the Army’s Commander-in-Chief in India.
Penelope had inherited—or at any rate acquired—her father’s commanding, super-assured manner. A bossy, horsy girl, apparently the quintessence of the fearsome English memsahib, she perfectly fit with Betjeman’s wish for female domination. (For those who are interested, Penelope is portrayed as the title character in Evelyn Waugh’s Helena and also figures in Lord Berners’s camp classics, The Camel and Far from the Madding War; she is also the model for Philippa Townsend in Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.) The German maid who worked for the Betjemans during their early days together initially assumed that John’s Christian name was “Shutup,” as that was how he was frequently addressed. Even Penelope’s closest friends found her exhausting. Many years later James Lees-Milne reacted with panic to the idea of her coming to live nearby: “I don’t think I could bear it. I love her dearly, but she is impossible to be with for more than two hours. She bulldozes one, is utterly self-centred. She overwhelms and overbears.”
Youthful high spirits saw them through the first years. Their home at Uffington in Berkshire was a hive of social and domestic activity. “Penelope invented ‘free range’ long before anybody thought up the expression,” recalled Lancaster. “The place was an animal sanctuary—and it stank.” Penelope, he wrote, had “a missionary zeal for widening the cultural horizons of her rural neighbors” and “under her direction the Uffington Women’s Institute became a transforming influence and its ceaseless activities demanded the full co-operation of all her friends.” One evening, “the principal item on the programme was a performance of ‘Summer is icumen in’ sung by Adrian Bishop, Maurice Bowra, my wife and the poet himself, accompanied on the piano by Lord Berners and by Penelope on a strange instrument resembling a zither. My own contribution to the ensemble took the form of a flute obbligato. So powerful was the effect that all remained rooted to their seats.”
Powerful, confident wife, adoring husband, happy years… . But things are seldom as simple as they seem. The apparently ineffectual Betjeman proved to be a master of passive-aggression and had, as Anthony Powell once noticed, “a whim of iron.” He immediately gained the emotional upper hand in the marriage, though it seemed to be a source of guilt rather than enjoyment to him. He and Penelope were never compatible, and his infidelities—along with her jealousy—were fatal. When he permanently transferred his affections to Lady Elizabeth Cavendish in the 1950s not only Penelope but he, too, suffered. Fatherhood was not much better. “Of all the fathers I have known, not excepting myself, he was the worst,” wrote Alan Pryce-Jones. “I think he liked the idea of being a father… . But he found that being a father was no fun at all.” Relations with his daughter Candida tended to be smooth, but he teased Paul, his son, mercilessly. The boy responded by drawing as far away as possible; father and son were estranged for many years.
Betjeman’s reputation as a poet rose steadily. In 1937 his new publisher, John Murray, brought out Continual Dew, then Old Lights for New Chancels in 1940 and New Bats in Old Belfries at the end of the war. Having started out as a coterie figure with a cultish readership, Betjeman began reaching an ever-widening group, until eventually he became the nation’s best-selling and possibly best-loved poet. The feat he performed as a poet is rather extraordinary; he brought serious poetry back to the general reader. Eliot’s famous dictum that contemporary poetry must be difficult had, it seemed, been at least temporarily repealed. There were grumpy complaints, like that of the American critic A. Alvarez who responded to the runaway success of Betjeman’s Collected Poems with “the revolution called ‘modern poetry,’ on which all our critical standards are founded, never took place for a huge proportion of the English poetry-reading public. They are still living in some hazy pre-Prufrock Never-Never Land.” What Alvarez and his ilk didn’t acknowledge was that modernist poetry had stubbornly remained the business of an elite, and the contract between the serious writer and the general public had been breached. Betjeman brought them together again. The key to his achievement, perhaps, lies in a belief, as Philip Larkin pointed out, “that poetry is an emotional business, rather than an intellectual and moral one.”
In a better age Betjeman would have found a rich patron. As things stood he had to earn a living, a task he found perpetually onerous. It was not that he was inefficient, though he tried hard to give that impression so as to escape tedious professional and domestic tasks: Hillier says that while he was often called “bumbling,” he could be perfectly businesslike when it suited him. It was simply that he bored too easily and fatally lacked stick-to-itiveness. He worked as a film critic, a freelance book reviewer, an editor, a copywriter for Shell, assistant director of the books division at the British Council—and failed in all these jobs. During the war he worked in the films department at the Ministry of Information (as one of his colleagues remarked, “it says much for the British Civil Service that, in an hour of grave peril for the nation, it has actually been able to find something for John Betjeman to do”), as the British press attaché (some said spy) in neutral Ireland, and in the Admiralty. Again, at none of these ventures was he much use except as a dispenser of charm (not that his employers were ungrateful for this gift). Later, as the most vocal and visible architectural preservationist in England, he served on numerous committees; again, he often turned out to be less useful and successful in this field than his arch-nemesis, Nikolaus Pevsner, the apostle of Kunstgeschichte, whose Prussian efficiency and professionalism offended his determined sense of amateurism.
It was not until his histrionic and didactic gifts were discovered by the new medium of television that Betjeman found work that was both congenial and lucrative. He was, as producers and directors immediately observed, a natural: charm, energy, erudition, all directed full force at the audience (“our readers,” as he called him) without a shade of condescension or “talking down.” The programs were produced at the height of his poetic fame, in the wake of the huge sales of Collected Poems (1958) and his long autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells (1960). Among the classic television documentaries he hosted from the early 1960s on were The ABC of Churches, Pride of Place, A Passion for Churches, Four with Betjeman, and the hugely popular Metroland (1973). These shows, in the end, did far more for architectural conservation than his previous efforts. As Hillier insists, they “won over the public to Victoriana more effectively than a hundred well-researched works by Pevsner could have done.”
The television appearances confirmed Betjeman in his role as, in the words of some unsympathetic observers, “teddy-bear to the nation.” He was knighted in 1969. (Speaking for thousands, the writer Angus Wilson expressed his congratulations as one who had “attended your adolescent dances, your beach cricket, and wept with you at the Café Royal and the Cadogan Hotel. Long years of rhododendrons and pony clubs to you.”) Three years later he was selected as poet laureate upon the death of Cecil Day Lewis.
The laureateship tends, like the Nobel, to be the kiss of death; the necessity for providing appropriate and, most of all, inoffensive verses upon royal events strangles creativity. “One knows poetry can’t be written to order,” Betjeman said. “One just waits for something to come through from The Management upstairs [God] and The Management can be very capricious.” He failed his first test, Princess Anne’s wedding, badly. One would have thought the courtship of two Olympic riders a natural subject for Betjeman, but of course no levity was allowed. Trying to squeeze out a poem for the Silver Jubilee was “trauma.” Many began to realize that Betjeman, conservative and royalist though he was, might have been the worst possible choice for laureate.
He was also beginning to suffer the early symptoms of the Parkinson’s Disease that would eventually cripple him. In the 1970s he gave up his flat in the City and moved to Chelsea to be near Elizabeth Cavendish. She, like Penelope, was an extremely controlling type, but unlike Penelope she catered to his needs and comforts. More than one friend thought that Penelope’s neglect of these contributed almost as much to the breakup of the marriage as her 1947 conversion to Roman Catholicism, which had upset him deeply.
Swinging Chelsea in the 1970s was probably the least sympathetic abode Betjeman could have found, and the poet fell prey to anxiety and depression. Moreover, in his last years Betjeman was laid so low by Parkinson’s, strokes, and heart attacks that his peaceful death in 1984—with Archie the teddy-bear and Jumbo the elephant in either arm, and the cat asleep on his stomach—came as a relief to those who loved him. Though he had proved (like so many!) an unsatisfactory laureate, the Establishment sent him out in style with a splendiferous memorial service at Westminster Abbey, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and with the Prince of Wales reading the lesson. Anthony Powell recorded his impressions of the event in his journal: “One could not help indulging in rather banal reflections about the seedy unkempt (but never in the least unambitious) Betjeman of early days, snobbish objections to him at Oxford, Chetwodes’ opposition to the marriage, crowned at the last by all this boasted pomp and show. It was a remarkable feat.”
Bevis Hillier’s task in recording this feat has not always been easy. This is an “authorized” biography, and though it is chock-full of marvelous gossip it is clear that Hillier was compelled to be discreet in places; Elizabeth Cavendish, in particular, is treated with kid gloves, and the startling appearance of a second “wife” at Ernest Betjemann’s funeral is never followed up. But Hillier has succeeded in producing, one feels, an essentially honest portrait. Sympathetic but not sycophantic, he communicates both Betjeman’s tremendous charm and also the less agreeable sides to his character. Wisely, he has done this not by quoting the poet’s enemies but his friends, such as Myfanwy Piper. Betjeman, she recalled, approached all human relationships through an idea or an invented situation. “‘Approached’ is perhaps the wrong expression: ‘staved off’ is more like it.”
This concept of “staving off” was echoed by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
He enjoys bouts of willful rapture. There was (I thought) a rather unprepossessing boy/girl who provoked an outburst. “What a lovely girl! I thought with those trousers and those freckles she was a boy, but she was a girl! Didn’t you think she was perfectly lovely? I thought she was beautiful,” and so on. I think this is all part of the scheme to keep affectionate laughter going. He is extremely sensitive to other people, and it is his way of having a rest from them.
Generally speaking, he was a better friend than he was a husband, a father, or a son—as so often seems the case with creative artists. The extraordinary receptivity that produces the art becomes hypersensitivity in close relationships. And Betjeman was receptive, abnormally so. It is that quality, added to his ear and glorious verbal facility, that made him not just a wonderful light poet or a wonderful minor poet but a wonderful poet, tout court.