Happy Knack

Ian Sansom

  • John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love by Bevis Hillier
    Murray, 736 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 7195 5002 5

If there is one pleasure available to mankind it’s doing what we’re not supposed to do – playing, fiddling, mooching, galooting and otherwise tickling our fancies. This explains, for example, why people come home early, or stay out all night long, why we sleep in, sleep over, drink to excess, write, read or publish literary criticism, and commit crime. It certainly helps explain why Bevis Hillier has written an enormous biography of a dead English minor poet.

John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love is the second volume of Hillier’s proposed trilogy and covers, roughly, the years 1933-58, the period when Betjeman, as Larkin put it, ‘became Betjeman’. The book is 736 pages long. Its predecessor, Young Betjeman, was 477 pages long. Depending on how the next volume pans out, the complete Life is going to be at least treble and possibly quadruple the size of your average biography of Auden, Eliot or Pound, and might even outdo the Bible, which was of course written by divers hands, over a 1500-year period, and may have been assisted in its composition by the Spirit of God Him or Herself. ‘I have now devoted over 25 years of my life,’ Hillier announces in his preface, ‘to the 78 of John Betjeman’s.’ One begins to suspect that Hillier does not in fact exist, and that Borges made him up.

Betjeman: New Fame, New Love is, then, quite a marvellous thing, and in several senses perverse. There is a lot of murk in it, because there’s an awful lot of murk in any life, if you look close enough and long enough, and poets are dirtier than most people, although with Betjeman perhaps the stains stand out more, in a public life of proverbial white-suited and baggy-trousered gentility.

So, to deal first with the inevitable mess and dirt. At the beginning of the book, in 1933, within a year of his marriage to Penelope Chetwode, Betjeman is having an affair with their housegirl. He continued to have relationships with numerous other women throughout his long and apparently happy marriage to Penelope, although the exact nature of these relationships is never revealed, in order, presumably, to protect those involved. Hillier, it should be noted, is defiantly pro-Betjeman, and perhaps just a little anti-Penelope, describing her at one point as ‘horse-mad and cantankerous’, which is a bit rich, since one might just as easily describe Betjeman as a silly little man with a taste for posh totty; though one wouldn’t, of course. The terms Hillier chooses to describe Betjeman’s relationships are nice little phrases like ‘smitten’, or ‘fell in love with’, which is all very fine and noble – admirable even – except perhaps in the case of Betjeman’s relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, a woman with whom he shared much of his later life, and about whom Hillier tells us very little.

Betjeman and Cavendish met in 1951 at a dinner party; he was 45 and she was 25. Cavendish was the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, a cousin of Lord David Cecil, et cetera, and became a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret – the next best thing, perhaps, to Betjeman bagging a royal. His relationship with Cavendish was clearly one of the most important in his life, but the reader is left to infer from Hillier’s silences, or to guess from the odd clue or glimpse, the precise details and circumstances of their ‘arrangement’. (Penelope, it should be said, along with everyone else, was quite aware of her husband’s relationship with Cavendish; in time-honoured tradition he kept a London flat and Penelope stayed put in the country.) ‘When John was with Elizabeth,’ Hillier writes, ‘she ministered to his comfort in a way that Penelope rarely did.’ Exactly what constituted John Betjeman’s comfort remains unclear.

Hillier hints that Betjeman’s energies being directed towards his own self-satisfaction may have made him a less than exemplary father, although his daughter, Candida Lycett Green, clearly adored him – of his relationship with Cavendish, she has written, ‘I found the situation completely without conflict’ – and her excellent editions of Betjeman’s Letters make a necessary companion to Hillier. (Although, like Hillier’s, these books are lacking in one essential regard: in her preface to the second volume of the Letters, Lycett Green admits that a ‘chasm-like gap is the absence of any letters written by my father to his beloved Elizabeth Cavendish, who became, in effect, his other wife.’ Cavendish rather royally desired that the letters be kept private for fifty years after Betjeman’s death, which means that most of us shall remain in ignorance, or be too old to care, but in years to come our grandchildren may find themselves writing PhDs on the subject at the University of Cincinnati.)

Betjeman has been fortunate in being blessed with not one but two people prepared to dedicate their lives to retelling his own, so he must have been doing something right – most of us, after all, are going to do well to merit anything more than an In Memoriam in the local paper and half a dozen glasses raised in tribute. His relationship with his son, Paul, does seem to have been a little strained, but then again, is there a father-son relationship that isn’t? I mean – seriously – Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Betjeman apparently enjoyed teasing Paul as a child – hardly holy, but something regarded as a harmless sport among middle and upper-class males, so I’m given to understand – and he seems also to have referred to him, always, as ‘the Powlie’, which must have been annoying for the young fellow, at the very least. But then Betjeman always enjoyed name-calling and was a great one for the put-down. Myfanwy Piper, the artist John Piper’s wife (and emphatically ‘My Myfanwy’ in Betjeman’s poem ‘Myfanwy at Oxford’), is quoted by Hillier as saying: ‘the game had to be played.’ Maybe that’s just poets for you: a poem, after all, is a game.

More than anything perhaps, Betjeman liked collecting people; that was the great game. His high regard for anyone with a title has rubbed off on Hillier, who is punctilious in recording correct names and titles, a peculiar determination the effect of which is unintentionally humorous, as if one were listening to a story told by someone who has memorised the entire contents of Who’s Who, Debrett’s, Burke’s Peerage and the Sunday Times Rich List. We are told, for example, that Betjeman was friendly with P. Morton Shand and his lovely daughters, Elspeth and Mary, ‘who were to marry, respectively, the politician Geoffrey Howe (now Lord Howe) and the architect James (later Sir James) Stirling’. Sometimes whole sentences seem designed merely to boast of good breeding: the good looks of the young Candida, Hillier announces, ‘rivalled those of the most stunning women undergraduates, Anita Auden (a niece of the poet), Grizelda Grimond (daughter of the Liberal leader, Jo Grimond) and Maggie Keswick (daughter of the Hong Kong taipan, Sir John Keswick)’. Working-class undergraduates, one can only assume, were all ugly. Even Betjeman’s secretary Tory Dennistoun is connected, like almost everyone else in the book, to her own silver-lined and gloriously inevitable parenthesis: ‘Tory Dennistoun (now Lady Oaksey)’. Suffering from a sebaceous cyst Betjeman attended the Acland Nursing Home, and ‘he was nursed there by the historical novelist Mary Renault,’ the lucky thing: the rest of us have to put up with mere nurses. Betjeman, you see, had high standards.

There were, Hillier notes, rich people whom the Betjemans ‘did not court’, but not many, and unless you’re already familiar with the various dynasties, scions and endless ramifications of the English upper classes, the names eventually begin to blur and merge, like those of the descendants of the tribes of Israel, or a spouse’s extended family: ‘Lady de Tufton de Blah Blah Blah, the wife of Whomever, and cousin of the Dowager Yadda Yadda Yadda’. After all his exhausting ermine-hunting, Hillier nonetheless expresses amazement that Betjeman chose Lord Birkenhead to write an introduction to his Collected Poems, when Betjeman’s old friends John Sparrow or Tom Driberg might have done a better job. ‘Why Lord Birkenhead?’ Hillier asks. Might it be because he was called ‘Lord’? If he had been plain Billy Birkenhead then Betjeman probably wouldn’t have bothered: he liked well-knowns, and being well known. ‘John,’ Hillier writes, ‘had the happy knack of being reviewed by friends.’ ‘Happy knack’ is nice. If you were a London reviewer or editor or the Master of an Oxford college in the middle decades of the last century and John Betjeman hadn’t pressed your flesh, you were very probably dead already.

Finally, on the biographical debit side there are the usual miscellaneous acts of thoughtlessness, rudeness and generally shabby behaviour. When Penelope was received into the Roman Catholic Church in March 1948, for example, Betjeman rather pointedly took off to Cornwall, and then to Denmark for a week. But then, in fairness, he did take his religion almost as seriously as he took himself – he decorated his house in Wantage with ecclesiastical wallpaper and had an altar-cloth cut for curtains in his London flat – and clearly viewed Penelope’s going over to Rome as a betrayal. The last poem in the Collected Poems, ‘The Empty Pew’, commemorates the event and ends: ‘In the Perspective of Eternity/The pain is nothing – but, ah god, in Time’. As for Betjeman’s decision not to break his friendship with the Mosleys because of what Hillier calls ‘a political scandal’, well, what can one say? The pain may be nothing, in the Perspective of Eternity, but ah god, in Time. Oh, and he also called his wife ‘Filth’, or ‘Philth’. ‘She’s hipposexual,’ he told Graham Greene. You can make your own judgment about all this.

Actually, if you’ve read the poems, you probably will already have made your own judgment. To crack open Betjeman’s famously bestselling Collected Poems – ‘the publishing phenomenon of 1958’, Hillier notes – is to be confronted first with ‘Death in Leamington’, which begins ‘She died in the upstairs bedroom,’ and then to be witness to pretty much the full range of violent and repressed human emotions. Everywhere, from ‘The City’, ‘Slough’, ‘Exeter’, ‘In Westminster Abbey’ to ‘Hertfordshire’ and ‘The Shires’, is an ‘Unmitigated England’, to quote Betjeman quoting Henry James, of mild exteriors and deep, horrible, aching emotions. ‘I am cushioned and soft and heated,’ he concludes ‘Pershore Station, or A Liverish Journey First Class’, ‘with a deadweight in my heart.’ Reading Betjeman one is reminded of country and western music, and Matthew Arnold:

Ah, whose hand that day through Heaven guided
Man’s new spirit, since it was not me?
Ah, who sway’d our choice, and who decided
What our gifts, and what our wants should be?

For, alas! he left us each retaining
Shreds of gifts which he refused in full;
Still these waste us with their hopeless straining,
Still the attempt to use them proves them
null.

And on earth we wander, groping, feeling;
Powers stir in us, stir and disappear.
Ah! and he who placed our master-feeling,
Fail’d to place master-feeling clear.

Betjeman is England’s favourite poet of unclear emotions, of ‘groping, feeling’, and of groping and feeling: ‘plump white fingers made to curl/Round some anaemic city girl’ (‘The City’); ‘I run my fingers down your dress/With brandy-certain aim/And you respond to my caress/And maybe feel the same’ (‘Late-Flowering Lust’). In his poetry he seems always to be in search of the firm and the immutable, and so, naturally, he sets great store by things like human flesh, familiar places and big old buildings. Something you can get a grasp of, something to save you from yourself: metre, traditions and firm opinions.

Hillier helpfully sets all these frustrations and yearnings in context, yet doesn’t strain for clever correspondences between the work and the life: as he points out in his preface, his is not a ‘critical’ biography, literary-critically, psychoanalytically, personally or otherwise. Hillier just digs and digs and heaps, and lets the information speak for itself. John and Penelope, the young marrieds in Uffington, for example, where they hosted the Parochial Youth Fellowship and Betjeman painted a mural over the chimneypiece depicting a naked woman. The huge circle of friends and acquaintances, and how much Betjeman loved being on the telly. The aristocratic airs, and the constant struggle to make a living (for much of the period Betjeman worked as a hack reviewer, editor and jobbing journalist; as film critic for the Evening Standard; at the Express writing the ‘Man about the House’ column, offering handy hints on unblocking sinks; as literary editor of Time and Tide; editor of the Shell Guides to the English counties; and of the quarterly magazine, Decoration). The big house with a tied cottage and gardener, and poor Penelope riding her 500cc Norton and running a café in Wantage to help make ends meet. Betjeman’s bumbling, bluffing exterior and his sterling war work as assistant to Sir Kenneth Clark at the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, and then as a press attaché to Sir John Maffey, the senior British diplomat in Ireland, where he was possibly a spy for the British Government. The poems tossed off on the back of envelopes, and collected up by adoring secretaries, and the obsession with how a book should look (a typical instruction to his publisher John Murray runs: ‘Binding, dark blue cloth. Paper creamy brown. White label on spine. A sort of pocket book. No illustrations beyond a Pickering tailpiece at the end of the preface. Very wide margins. 8 or 6 pt Modern Face or Baskerville’). His complete failure in perhaps the one job that he wanted to do well: as secretary of the Oxford Preservation Trust, between 1946 and 1948. Above all, the huge ambition and the appearance of indolence, a very English contradiction which Anthony Powell summed up in just three words: Betjeman, he said, had a ‘whim of iron’. Indeed he did. He ended one of his columns in the Spectator: ‘Is this all a bit arch and E.V. Lucas-y and Fourth Leaderish? Yes, it is, and all the better for that.’ The same might be said of John Betjeman the book: a 736-page Fourth Leader. A wonderful way to waste time.