‘John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures’

Gavin Ewart

When I see yet another work of hagiography
concerning Sir John Betjeman,
it makes me want to vomit!
Show me, I want to say, please, the ‘geography’
of the house![1]
But Betjeman wasn’t nasty, in fact very far from it.

It’s probably the Murrays who are such penny-turners
(Byron’s one was a Philistine).
John’s an important asset,
one of the few real genuine poetic earners,[2]
man not mouse,
in many a crowd-pulling, wide, populist facet.

It all seems so easy, the noble Lordlings
at Marlborough or Magdalen – [3]
they made his way much smoother.
No truck with the Callaghans or Maudlings[4]
but real peers!
All other poets so much less friended, uncouther.

He had great talent – but Lord Alfred Douglas
and Evelyn Waugh (less awful) –
really, who needs them?[5]
Lord Alfred needed selling to the smugglers[6]
for a few beers,
with his ghastly poems (and who, now, reads them?).

I’d rather they honoured Grigson or Bunting[7]
or anyone less televised.
Someone anti-life, grim, retiring!
Less of the stately homes, horses, hunting,
the young drunk rich ones so self-admiring.

But John was ‘trade’ – don’t let’s forget it –
he had to push to get there.
No ancestors, no crest-embossed look.[8]
The world came, large, wild – he met it,
like all loners,
with that genuinely troubled ‘lost’ look.

Further Suggestions. A Betjeman Calendar, with quotations from the verse. An annual Betjeman Day on his Birthday, with a service in Westminster Abbey. The ‘Oxford’ edition of his Complete Works, with Notes, Introductory Essays and Commentaries. A coffee-table Book of Popular Betjeman Dogs and Horses, edited by Lady Penelope. An unofficial ‘pirated’ life of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. Organised Platypus Races in Australia. Most of these being explored at this very moment by John Murray?

[1] an old euphemism for lavatory, toilet etc

[2] more copies sold than any poet since Tennyson

[3] a war spent in Ireland

[4] or the Wilsons, though Mary was earlier a friend and later a Lady

[5] too many Beatonish Twenties and Thirties photos

[6] Douglas lived in retirement at Brighton, once a centre of smuggling

[7] Roy Fuller perhaps?

[8] blame for overselling always attaches to publishers, not authors