Half-Way up the Hill

Frank Kermode

  • Young Betjeman by Bevis Hillier
    Murray, 457 pp, £15.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4531 5

John Betjeman was nicely eccentric, and droll in a way mysteriously suited to English taste. His being so droll allowed him to display an out-of-the-way learning that might otherwise have seemed remote and ineffectual, but on which it was his gift to confer a certain centrality. He liked to seem lazy, which is why, having repeatedly failed the easy examination in Divinity then compulsory at Oxford, he went down without a degree. He enjoyed best, and studied energetically, what others neglected to know – not only forgotten Victorian architecture, but the verse of Philip Bourke Marston or that of Ebepezer Jones (whom Mr Hillier, by an un-Betjemanian slip, confounds with Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer).

In such matters it was good and original pedagogy to be droll. To be so on the subject of the extremely upper classes may seem less useful. They evidently caused him to suffer, to fear that they might think him common, or, nastiest of all their put-downs, middle-class. Betjeman was undeniably middle-class, and this unhappy accident of birth occasionally induced in him bouts of self-contempt.

That this portrait of him should be so enormously detailed testifies to the author’s confidence that a reasonably large readership will be fascinated by the whims, fantasies and extravagances which spread like Alpine plants over the rock-like social assurance of its betters. At the end of this first volume the hero is still under thirty, with a long and droll career, presumably at least as well documented, still before him. Long biographies are in fashion, and the serious case for this one must be that Betjeman’s influence on insular taste really has been quite profound. He persuaded the nation that some things were interesting, or even frightfully interesting, which the constraints of fashion, and a general readiness to be tasteful within existing bounds, had not formerly permitted to be either.

Betjeman was the son of a man called Betjemann, an able man with a solid up-market cabinet-making business. John dropped the final ‘n’ because during the first war it was more comfortable to look Dutch than German; at school he was persecuted as a German spy. Except when signing the marriage register he stuck thenceforth to the shorter spelling, though his father chid him for it. As late as 1976 the son said he felt that as one held to be German he hadn’t ‘any right to be in this country’. T.S. Eliot, who taught him for a while at school, would sign himself ‘Metoikos’, and it seems that in this, though in few other respects, Eliot and Betjeman shared a feeling. As a matter of fact, the Betjemann family seems to have been settled in London from 1797 on. It was not without talent – its various branches produced musicians as well as drunkards and wastrels. The poet’s great-grandfather invented the locked tantalus, to keep the servants from the drink, but unwisely carried a key, and died at 34 of ‘the things he was locking up’. This somehow sounds more English than German, but in some matters reassurance is not to be had.

When his very grand mother-in-law described him as a middle-class Dutchman, he must have thought himself out of the frying-pan into the fire: still a despised European. It made things worse that he detested abroad; Osbert Lancaster said that Betjeman abroad had to be surrounded by friends, like a rugby player who has lost his shorts. He also disliked Betjemann, who, though a man of parts, was at times quarrelsome and censorious.

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