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.
The same unsmiling fervour characterises a letter to Jack Beddington a few years earlier, when Betjeman was ‘editor in all but name’ of the Architectural Review and Beddington, publicity director for Shell-Mex, was working with him on the Shell Guides. The introductory nickname (‘Dear Beddioleman’) is the only light touch Betjeman allows himself. The rest is what he describes as the longest cry from the heart he has ever typed; it is about the machinations of certain bloody-minded parties concerned in producing the Guides. Increasingly he takes up a public stance: ‘As a visitor to Sheffield and a student of architecture,’ he writes to the Sheffield Star, ‘I would like to express a hope that your most beautiful classical church of St Paul’s will be rebuilt exactly as it stands on its new site.’
Few things other than buildings and their furniture and fittings brought out Betjeman’s solemnity. He was not political, as he told several of his correspondents. As the letters cover a period which endured the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and its immediate aftermath, his insouciance can become off-putting. In 1940, writing to Prebendary Gerard Irvine (‘My dearest Prefect’), he could say, about his own teddy bear: ‘Archie is very well and pro-Hitler.’ I suppose I should have shrieked but in fact I reflected that at that very time people were saying exactly the same thing about the Duke of Windsor. I wonder if he and Archie were related. When it comes to human beings rather than bears, the matter assumes Forsterian dimensions and tones. Betjeman had known the Mosleys for some time before the war, especially Diana, née Mitford then Guinness, and when they became widely ostracised for their Fascism, his friendship towards them stood firm, taking the humane form of frequently inviting them to Sunday lunch and finding a preparatory school that would accept their sons. His own apolitical attitude guided him. He had already sent them a message in a letter to Nancy Mitford. ‘I’d like to see Diana and Co. Give them my love. One form of state control is as bad as another.’
His letters suggest, and from time to time specifically state, that he did not take the war to heart: ‘I wish I cared more about the war.’ The readers of his letters may wish it too. Nobody who can remember the war could deny that it was ‘a spot of bother’ and ‘infuriating’, but few people would confine their recollections of those years to such mildly querulous comments. Betjeman makes it all sound like a skirmish in some remote dependency that stopped us getting bananas. His accounts are not without their own kind of interest, however, especially his ideas about how to get the right sort of war work. He was determined to ‘do his bit’, as he often declared, typically using the parlance of the First World War rather than that of the one that was currently taking place. His advice to Kenneth Clark on the subject is eloquent: ‘I like the Air Force: it is so horrible that no one has thought of going into it. I advise you to consider it. We are both too old to fly.’ His ‘bit’, when it presented itself, was the post of press attaché to the British Ambassador in Dublin. He filled it for two years and seems to have been a great success.
The subject which brought out the full measure of Betjeman’s seriousness was religion. He felt more deeply about it than he did even about architecture, though obviously for him the two were intricately connected, and he discusses it with some of his correspondents at length. Quite early on, in a very sober letter to Roy Harrod, he sets out the nearest approach to a personal credo that his honesty and confusion of mind would permit: ‘I choose the Christian’s way (and completely fail to live up to it) because I believe it true and because I believe – for possibly a split second in six months but that’s enough – that Christ is really the incarnate son of God and that Sacraments are a means of grace and that grace alone gives one the power to do what one ought to do. And once I have accepted that, the questions of atonement, the Trinity, Heaven and Hell become logical and correct.’ When a man can say both so much and so little on this subject (he said it in 1939 when he was 33) it is difficult to predict how he will react to misfortune or indeed what he will consider to be misfortune. The letters hold several surprises. When in 1948 his wife decided to become a Catholic all hell broke loose. As no territorial, political or dynastic issues were involved, and as after all he was a practising Christian, his distress is at first not easy to understand. But we gather, piecemeal, that it was partly patriotic: he loved the Church of England, with its mad vicars and cold, oil-lit buildings; partly social: he genuinely enjoyed doing the hokey-cokey with his fellow parishioners; and partly marital: it pained him severely that he and his wife should walk in different directions on Sunday morning. It was certainly not intellectual. In his letters to Evelyn Waugh he expresses deep gratitude for his friend’s vigorous attempts to explain the Catholic position to him, but he resists Waugh’s arguments mulishly rather than rationally. For Betjeman in this crisis the smoke of ancient bonfires seems to darken the air.
From the letters of a highly successful poet like Betjeman, readers may well be expecting the sort of vatic insights and utterances in which poets of the past have so often excelled when writing to friends and admirers; but such readers will be disappointed. This is not to say that his comments about poetry are unimportant; very much on the contrary. But they are expressed informally and at random. His views are all his own; there are not many writers who, 16 years after the publication of Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry and 40 years after the advent of Modernism, would have been caught urging an aspiring poet to take ‘The Lady of Shalott’ as a model.
In one of her introductory chapters, his daughter gives an account of Betjeman’s writing habits, but it says nothing deeper than that he wrote in trains and restaurants on flattened cigarette packets and on the backs of envelopes. In his letters the poet himself barely speaks about his work until well into the Forties. But from then on we are fortunate in finding what could be called drafts and worksheets. His poem ‘I.M. Walter Ramsden ob. March 26, 1947, Pembroke College Oxford’ provides a good example. He sent the original version to a fellow of the college with tentative suggestions for concealing the dead man’s identity, should this be thought appropriate. (It was originally intended for the Oxford Magazine.) Ramsden was to be called Pocock and described as a Virgilian scholar, and so on. The poem was eventually included in A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954) with everybody in their true colours and Ramsden as the expert in silkworms which he actually was. The interesting thing is that by now the third stanza of the version given in the letter had been taken out. It had described how two colleagues of the Doctor found him lying sideways in his chair. They shouted ‘Doctor Ramsden, Doctor Ramsden’ (reasonably enough) and shook his arm, but in vain. It is tempting to speculate about this omission, for the third verse is not a bad one; just as good as the second anyway. A clue may lie in the fact that Betjeman’s creative powers were not aroused by the dead scholar but by Pembroke College, ‘the last of old Oxford left architecturally, vinously, socially and atmospherically’, as he says in the letter which accompanied the original version. In fact, he knew nothing about the circumstances of Ramsden’s death and he was not sufficiently concerned to find out, which would have been easy, or to imagine them to his own satisfaction. He was a dab hand at imagining deathbeds, including his own (‘The Cottage Hospital’), but he was also a shrewd self-critic.
Textually, the letters contain much that will be important to Betjeman scholars if not to the general reader. In the correspondence of December 1947, we come across something like a running commentary on the poem which finally appeared as ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’. Always compulsively attentive to vocabulary and syntax, in the composition of this poem Betjeman seems to have driven himself to neurosis. In letters to three separate people at this time he sets out his hopes and fears about it, veering between ‘I think “King’s” is a corker of a poem and worthy of all the labour I can give it’ and ‘It is a framework, if I am not too tired to go on working on it.’ He believes he ought to ‘tinker with it’ but does not quite know how. Tinker with it he does, however (‘yellowing’ is changed to ‘golden’ which is then changed back to ‘yellowing’), giving his correspondents hints about the process which his editor has now firmed up in her notes. Apparently there are three versions extant, all in King’s College.
His letters to his publishers and promoters are revealing, though his opinions tend to contradict each other as well as theirs. Writing to his first publisher Edward Jones in 1936, he reports: ‘Last week Auden wrote to me saying what a corking good comic (I like that word) poet I was.’ I wish one could be sure about the tone of that parenthesis. Betjeman can hardly have been straightforwardly pleased at being called comic as a poet. Humour, as he well knew, was the ladder by which he had climbed, but it had led to the stately homes of England and Ireland: he had not thought of it as leading to Parnassus. At the time that he was first being hailed as a scream by everybody who counted, he was writing some of the most overtly sad poems of his life. Three years later we find him writing to his next publisher John Murray, asking him if he may supply a preface to the new collection and saying that his poems are not satirical; such a step, he hopes, might save him from being reviewed by professional humorists. My immediate reaction to this was amazement at his denying that a poem such as ‘In Westminster Abbey’ was a satire. In a subsequent letter, to William Plomer, he took back his denial, merely saying that he thought the poem was cheap and he was ashamed of it. But second thoughts convinced me that he was right first time.
Most interesting of all the letters which speak of his work is the one to John Sparrow (‘My Dearest Spansbury’) about the Preface Sparrow had written to a selection of Betjeman’s poems, published in 1948. The two men had not always seen eye to eye. Sparrow had been one of the correspondents to whom Betjeman had confided his anxieties about ‘King’s’, but far from being sympathetically moved by the case Sparrow had excluded the poem from the volume he was introducing. It is odd, therefore, that Betjeman should more than once call the Preface ‘ADMIRABLE’ and even odder that he should do so when he strenuously objected to several of its points of view. ‘I am not primarily a poet of place first and people afterwards,’ he declares, giving examples, ‘but of people first and of place as an inextricable part of them.’ He is also adamant that the poems which Sparrow described as ‘amatory’ should really be called ‘sexy’, and again gives his reasons. In the event it was no use being adamant; in spite of John Murray’s support the offending words went through to publication.