Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 744 pp., £25, October 2004, 0 7195 6495 6
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The dust jacket of the final volume of Bevis Hillier’s epic life of John Betjeman shows the poet laureate seized by giggles. In this lengthy coda to Hillier’s authorised biography Betjeman appears in many lights, but he’s rarely carefree. ‘Nothing frightens me more than the thought of dying,’ he told a friend in 1958. He was 52, had a well-tried Christian faith and would live another 25 years. Betjeman sits most comfortably alongside the Goons or Tony Hancock, quirky depressives of the wireless age whose voices speak to a disenchanted, disconnected world, laughing it all off until the red light in the studio goes out.

Betjeman, his name apart, was utterly, balefully English in everything except his hatred of dogs. He was distrustful of all things foreign, baffled and dismissive of the unfamiliar, in language or habit. In his various book-lined studies there is no sign that great French or Russian literature sat alongside his editions of Hardy, Waugh and his favourite 19th-century Uranian poets. He hated abroad on principle, with the exception of Australia, which he visited in 1961 and celebrated for its wonderful light, architectural variations on a theme and resplendent wildlife.

By 1960, when this volume begins, Betjeman was feeling the anxiety of the ageing writer, well expressed by Patrick Kavanagh, a friend of his from wartime Dublin:

Give us another poem, he said
Or they will think your muse is dead;
Another middle-aged departure
Of Apollo from the trade of archer.

In January 1960 Evelyn Waugh declared that he and Betjeman, along with Elizabeth Bowen and L.P. Hartley, had lost their edge as writers. In these often maudlin years, Betjeman’s openness is a great asset to his biographer just as it was a considerable source of material to the poet. The flyleaf of the Collected Poems (1958) states that ‘unlike most modern modish poets, he has no need to be obscure about cryptic personal experiences.’ That he had once been ‘inverted’, as he wrote to a bisexual friend who was getting married, was no secret; he broadcast the fact in frequent asides about fanciable young men or even small boys. But he had also begun to live a double life, sidelining his wife, Penelope Chetwode, a field marshal’s daughter (whom he nicknamed ‘Philth’) in favour of his mistress, the Hon. Elizabeth Cavendish, a duke’s sister (‘Phoeble’).

He had met her at dinner in 1951, when she was 25, describing ‘my new friend’ to a (male) correspondent as ‘just our kind of girl … bracing and witty and kind and keen on drink’, and by the end of the decade she was his constant companion. He always claimed to love them both, but it was Penelope, handful that she was, who suffered his loss both emotionally and financially. Elizabeth determinedly kept them apart and John obeyed instructions. He described his own situation in the late 1950s with chilling clarity in ‘Pershore Station’:

With Guilt, Remorse, Eternity the void within me fills
And I thought of her left behind me in the Herefordshire hills.
I remembered her defencelessness as I made my heart a stone
Till she wove her self-protection round and left me on my own.

Summoned by Bells, Betjeman’s self-portrait in blank verse, was published in 1960. As Hillier puts it, neatly: ‘John’s generation was given to premature autobiography.’ Precocious Beverley Nichols headed the field with Twenty-Five while Christopher Isherwood and Cyril Connolly wisely allowed another ten years of their lives to elapse before they wrote, respectively, Lions and Shadows and Enemies of Promise.

Hillier publishes long sections of Summoned by Bells which were excised, including several cruel references to Betjeman’s parents. One passage that begins, ‘These hideous people, were they really his?’ goes on to describe his father’s (but surely, here, their son’s?) snobbery with ‘The half-pay colonels whom he called his friends’, and ends:

And in some gas-lit bedroom did they mate?
And say was I the undesired result?

The removal of those vicious phrases was Betjeman’s decision, but other alterations were advised by his informal editorial panel, his publisher John Murray and the odd couple of John Sparrow and Tom Driberg. Sparrow was a grammarian pedant, ‘a great which-hunter’, as Murray put it, while Driberg watched the tenses and any surfeit of sentiment like a hawk. ‘If that’s what heaven’s like it won’t be bad’ was, for Driberg, rather ‘in the Godfrey Winn manner’, and out it went. Schools, university, those loved and loathed, all troop by. Summoned by Bells was panned by John Wain, ensuring him an elevated position on Betjeman’s shelf of hate figures, none of whom was ever dusted off or taken down. Nor did its unconvincing blank verse impress Raymond Mortimer or even Philip Larkin, who warned Murray his review would not be ‘a rave’. Others simply parodied Betjeman’s more familiar tum-ti-tum verses, which, as the Sunday Express showed, was all too easy:

Have you read the latest Betjeman?
But, my dear, you simply must!
He’s adored by Princess Margaret;
Yes, he’s madly upper crust.

In the minority were those impressed, such as Stephen Spender and William Plomer. Betjeman wrote to the latter thanking him. ‘Fuck Wain and the prig in the Times who was probably Griggers’ – Geoffrey Grigson, another in his rogues’ gallery. ‘I’ve gone away to escape further blows.’ His publisher hoped to steer Betjeman back to architecture, but despite the rollcall of topics Murray reminded him that they had discussed – ‘Street, Norman Shaw, a volume of topography articles, an Approach to Victorian Architecture, the next volume of memoirs’ – none was forthcoming.

‘William Hickey’ in the Daily Express foresaw Betjeman’s likely role as poet laureate and commissioned him to write a poem on Prince Andrew’s birth in 1960. Following a slim volume of poetry, High and Low (1966), which initially he had been reluctant to publish for fear of more unpleasant reviews, came his 1969 knighthood and then in 1972 the royal appointment, though its responsibilities proved a terrible burden, coinciding with the first intimations of Parkinson’s disease.

Hillier’s reluctance to curtail a quote or shorten an interview sees him devoting entire chapters to Betjeman’s friendships and spinning off into obscure descriptions of everyone’s relationships to everyone else. In the background are a number of creepily subservient figures who share his interests, drive him about and catalogue his books, as well as a succession of dubious former clerics employed as secretaries, a change for the worse from the freckled, resilient young women who peopled his various wartime offices and his poetry.

But there are surprises too. Betjeman first encountered Barry Humphries in 1961, the year he fell in love with Australia, and witnessed Humphries’s act bomb on its first London outing, at the Establishment Club. Later, Betjeman had the satisfaction of seeing Dame Edna Everage soar to fame. Other unlikely friends included Mary Wilson (whom he once used to trump the BBC’s religious broadcasting department in a turf war), Ian Fleming and John Osborne. The bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, surrounded by Arab boys, camp churchmen and Beverley Nichols, takes the credit for widening Betjeman’s horizons, leading him and Elizabeth Cavendish regularly abroad in a group that Osbert Lancaster (one of Betjeman’s most steadfast friends) christened ‘the Church of England Ramblers Association’.

Betjeman’s hate figures could not be counted as enemies, since many of them were oblivious of their importance to him. Some, such as his Highgate schoolmaster T.S. Eliot and his Oxford nemesis C.S. Lewis, had been in post since his youth, but new figures continually joined them. One was Nikolaus Pevsner, who by some quirk of mandarin humour was knighted the same year as Betjeman.

Hillier struggles, unconvincingly, to find the roots of Betjeman’s unflinching hatred for the ‘Herr-Professor-Doktor’. In fact Hillier, and those he quotes, have missed the most likely source. Throughout the war years, when he was editing the Architectural Review, where Betjeman had worked earlier, Pevsner contributed a series called ‘Treasure Hunt’ under the pseudonym Peter F.R. Donner (in theory, to disguise how much of every issue he was writing himself). Still very much the architectural historian, with his references to the style of decorative motifs and examination of plan types, he turned his attention to everyday Victorian artefacts and suburban housing. The academic Pevsner had stolen the essentially dilettante Betjeman’s clothes. These were Betjeman’s subjects and, ever the only child, he could not share.*

In 1931, as Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled at his Westminster Abbey memorial service in 1996, Betjeman had galvanised a roomful of schoolboys with ‘a eulogy of the spare, uncluttered lines of the modern architecture of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus School … the merits of ferro-concrete and the simplicity of tubular steel furniture’, and dismissed a half-timbered Victorian villa as ‘a tribute to Anne Hathaway’. But even in the earliest of his published poems, collected in Mount Zion (1931), he refers little to these contemporary interests but rather to the ‘Happy bells of eighteen-ninety, Bursting from your freestone tower!’ (in ‘Westgate-on-Sea’) and gives a tongue-in-cheek tale of heavy church restoration in ‘Hymn’. Pevsner, who was a devotee of the Bauhaus and the International Style (named by the American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, another hated figure), was trespassing on Betjeman country and, adding insult to injury, was doing so masquerading behind an English assumed name.

By the 1960s, Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ were becoming known simply as ‘Pevsners’, and the series of county-by-county guides was in full flow (with little mention of humbler Victorian buildings). Meanwhile, Betjeman and John Piper’s ‘Shell Guides’ had slowed to a trickle, and relations between the joint editors became frosty after Piper’s son Edward took over the design of the series. The ‘Pevsners’ too were now often co-written, and their remit widened, especially in the hands of Ian Nairn, but Betjeman’s attitude did not soften: when someone admired his set of ‘Buildings of England’ at Radnor Walk, he flew into a towering rage and ordered them to be boxed up and taken down to the cellar.

Although they were both involved in the founding of the Victorian Society, Betjeman’s hatred for Pevsner remained implacable. He was the epitome of the art historian, an exaggerated Teutonic version of a professional breed pouring out of the Courtauld Institute (the foundation of which, Betjeman had written to the Times in the late 1930s, he considered a waste of money). But in the flurry of activity brought about by two major conservation battles in the early 1960s – the projected demolition, first of the Euston Arch, that most potent symbol of the railway age for Betjeman, and then of the London Coal Exchange, sacrificed to a futile road-widening scheme – there was no time for the luxury of enmity. The two men had essentially complementary skills. Betjeman’s talent was for the inspirational angry letter, the pulling of a string or two somewhere in a personal network, and, above all, for sharing his perceptions, humour and enthusiasm with a wide public. Committees and set tasks bored him; essentially dilatory, he tended to leave the tedious graft of organisation and campaigning to others. Pevsner, highly industrious and astute, believed in building up a case and making an argument based on hard facts.

The third major battle dealt with in Hillier’s book, for the preservation of Bedford Park, the Arts and Crafts garden suburb in West London, was a victory for which Betjeman, alongside a number of residents, could claim much of the credit. That campaign resulted in the listing of more than 350 buildings, which provided Bedford Park in its entirety with statutory protection.

But the activity that excited Betjeman most in the 1960s and 1970s was broadcasting. When asked if he felt his poetry had suffered from his involvement in making television programmes, Betjeman responded: ‘I like to think they are poems.’ From the ABC of Churches onwards, he knitted together his delight in the ordinary, the eccentric, the derided or overlooked, with a flow of delicious prose – or even apt silence. In Patrick Kavanagh’s happy phrase, from another context, he could ‘smelt in passion the commonplaces of life’. Television was made for him and he for it.

On screen, Betjeman could finally shake off the long shadow of Pevsner and the art historians. His hard-won spontaneity (he was often nervous before the camera rolled) enchanted viewers as he led them, white rabbit fashion, into a personal wonderland. The television director Eddie Mirzoeff recalled Betjeman’s involvement in the technical side, comfortable in the company of the crews and later working happily in the editing suite, rolling the argot of television (‘hair in the gate’) around. He developed an excellent partnership with Ted Roberts, the editor who cut Mirzoeff’s films (Metro-land and A Passion for Churches, shown in 1973 and 1974 respectively), as well as Jonathan Stedall’s Thank God It’s Sunday from 1972. Auden had been the first poet to compose directly to film, writing the lines for Night Train in the cutting room, and Betjeman and his colleagues built on Auden’s approach, treating images and words – whether prose or poetry – as one.

While he travelled the country on location and became increasingly celebrated as a result of his television appearances, Betjeman’s personal life continued to swirl round a number of partially submerged icebergs. One is the shadowy figure of his son, Paul, whom he refers to in one awful letter as ‘it’, and who was entirely estranged from him after university. His daughter, Candida Lycett Green, enjoyed a much happier and more reciprocally loving relationship with her father, managing to deal tactfully with the two women in his life. Elizabeth Cavendish is present throughout these pages, but silent, since she never talked to Hillier nor volunteered any letters. She emerges only in the words of third parties, latterly as Betjeman’s devoted nurse.

Penelope is scarcely more visible: her conversion to Catholicism (under Evelyn Waugh’s influence, Betjeman believed) was the ostensible reason for the disintegration of their marriage. Waugh based his 16-year-old horse-mad heroine St Helena on Penelope, who had once told him, teasingly perhaps: ‘I found it difficult to separate sex and religion after I married.’ But her horses remained centre-stage, as they had been at least since her grey Arab was photographed at tea in Lord Berners’s drawing-room. At times both partners in the marriage admitted that they could not live together; after their separation, Penelope begged for a little flat in London, but he did not oblige. While the half-bottles of champagne, the currency into which the sack ‘paid’ to the poet laureate was converted, were liberally shared in Cloth Fair and then in Chelsea, Penelope lived a hair-shirt, telephone-free existence near Hay-on-Wye.

Another of Betjeman’s architectural bêtes noires, Jim (‘Marx’) Richards, who had, like Pevsner, edited the Architectural Review, was, in retirement, leading a tour in India when, resounding across his hotel dining-room, he heard the unmistakable tones of Lady Betjeman. Richards had an eager group of fifteen people while Penelope was struggling to secure the attention of forty middle-aged American women. She had contributed articles on Indian art to the AR in the 1930s, but with children, houses and for a while a café to run in her husband’s absence, her own interests had been left in abeyance. Late in life she, too, came into her own on television. Jonathan Stedall’s film of the redoubtable Lady B. crossing a turbulent Himalayan stream spread-eagled on an inflated buffalo skin, paddled by a skinny Indian squashed beneath her, was shown again recently at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on lady travellers.

The Betjeman who emerges from these six hundred pages (there were more than a thousand in the previous two volumes) is a bewildering figure. Giggling charmer, proselytiser and enthusiast, he also emerges as a petulant depressive, tortured by worries on unresolved matters including his sexuality, social class and intellect. His furious pride left his disastrous relationships with his father and his son largely unhealed. During one of their long periods on location in Norfolk filming A Passion for Churches, Mirzoeff and Betjeman had a rare personal conversation. ‘It started with his talking about Penelope’ – who had just left after joining them on location, uninvited. ‘Then he talked about Paul – “the Powlie” as he called him – and his desperate sadness at what he felt was his failure to build bridges, to keep him alongside.’ Paul lived in North America, worked as a musician and was, for a time, a practising Mormon. ‘There was no contact. And John was feeling guilt, terrible terrible guilt.’ Mirzoeff suggested that he write and tell Paul what he felt. At first Betjeman replied that he couldn’t; then, seemingly persuaded, said he would – ‘but I don’t think he did.’ Finally, in the summer of 1977, Paul himself made peace with him.

Mirzoeff sensed that he had broken through the ‘jokes and the performance to the real person – who was, on that occasion, a very sad, unfulfilled, guilt-ridden person’. The other Betjeman was an immensely successful act, as Philip Larkin had seen, ‘rather like the fool that speaks the truth through jokes’, although the ‘sheer thumping silliness … is the whole intoxicating point’. And, most of the time, quite enough.

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