I Should Have Shrieked
- John Betjeman: Letters, Vol. I, 1926-1951 edited by Candida Lycett Green
Methuen, 584 pp, £20.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 413 66950 5
I was less than fifty pages into this first volume of John Betjeman’s Letters when I felt I must be in for an attack of tinnitus. I kept hearing shrieks of laughter. This condition was caused not by the poet himself but by the editor or Candida Lycett Green, his daughter, who seems to value nothing so much about her father as his ability to make people split their sides. She establishes that this was the way he first got on in the world. In his student days, invited to the august homes of his friends, he confronted hosts who considered him to be ‘not quite a gentleman’; one of them was Lord Rosslyn, but his guest’s ability to make Lady Rosslyn laugh saved the day, and the Rosslyns’ young daughter was won over by the same method. And on and on it goes. Anthony Powell remembers that when they were both staying with the Longfords ‘John made everybody laugh.’ ‘Betch made me laugh,’ attests Pamela Mitford. ‘Throughout our lives, whenever we met, we always burst out laughing,’ corroborates John Summerson.
Betjeman’s own feelings about his role as laugh-raiser were ambivalent. To the end of his life, and long after his jokes had ceased to serve any social advancement, he valued laughter for its own sake, as something beyond a joke. But he had no wish to be a clown. Nor was he. Only rarely in these letters does he specifically set out to entertain those he is writing to. When he is telling G.A. Kolkhorst (‘Darling Colonel’) about how he walked into a confessional thinking it was the way out of the church, he winds up the anecdote: ‘I did enjoy myself. I did like laughing. Tell wheezy old Hugh about that confessional.’ But on the whole he avoids Nancy Mitford’s habit of breaking off in mid-letter to make sure her correspondents are shrieking.
Many of Betjeman’s letters, especially the earlier ones, use the apparatus of mirth – Oirish imitations, babytalk, spoof signatures, rustic voices, rebus writing, caricatures, doodles and so on – but it too often sounds as though it needed oiling. Then there are the nicknames, which require, and get, quite a substantial glossary. Nicknames are an unreliable form of humour, tending to be silly, insulting and inaccurate. Betjeman’s can certainly be very tire-some, but neither the reviewer nor the readers can really complain as the letters are not addressed to them.
Some will in any case find the jollity very much to their taste. Those who do not will have many and various sorts of seriousness, even melancholy, to choose from in this protean collection. One is the gravitas of professionalism. In the course of his long dedication to architecture and its related concerns, Betjeman quite frequently adopts the tone of a man who never laughed about anything in his life. Even in situations where a stifled giggle might have been quite natural, he shows no signs of having one to stifle. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was People’s Warden of his parish church at Uffington, he wrote to the Council for the Care of Churches about the activities of two women who planned to present the church with a kneeler of their own design, ‘incorporating some perfectly hideous 1860 oak communion rails which were turned out of the church some years ago. They were, I think, early Street.’ He put forward a Machiavellian scheme which, a helpful editorial note tells us, solved the situation. Betjeman’s heart was thoroughly engaged; he may actually have suffered the sleepless nights he claims to have had. At all events we can be sure he would have lost more sleep over it than he did over the situation in Europe at the time.