Half-Way up the Hill

Frank Kermode

  • Young Betjeman by Bevis Hillier
    Murray, 457 pp, £15.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4531 5

John Betjeman was nicely eccentric, and droll in a way mysteriously suited to English taste. His being so droll allowed him to display an out-of-the-way learning that might otherwise have seemed remote and ineffectual, but on which it was his gift to confer a certain centrality. He liked to seem lazy, which is why, having repeatedly failed the easy examination in Divinity then compulsory at Oxford, he went down without a degree. He enjoyed best, and studied energetically, what others neglected to know – not only forgotten Victorian architecture, but the verse of Philip Bourke Marston or that of Ebepezer Jones (whom Mr Hillier, by an un-Betjemanian slip, confounds with Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer).

In such matters it was good and original pedagogy to be droll. To be so on the subject of the extremely upper classes may seem less useful. They evidently caused him to suffer, to fear that they might think him common, or, nastiest of all their put-downs, middle-class. Betjeman was undeniably middle-class, and this unhappy accident of birth occasionally induced in him bouts of self-contempt.

That this portrait of him should be so enormously detailed testifies to the author’s confidence that a reasonably large readership will be fascinated by the whims, fantasies and extravagances which spread like Alpine plants over the rock-like social assurance of its betters. At the end of this first volume the hero is still under thirty, with a long and droll career, presumably at least as well documented, still before him. Long biographies are in fashion, and the serious case for this one must be that Betjeman’s influence on insular taste really has been quite profound. He persuaded the nation that some things were interesting, or even frightfully interesting, which the constraints of fashion, and a general readiness to be tasteful within existing bounds, had not formerly permitted to be either.

Betjeman was the son of a man called Betjemann, an able man with a solid up-market cabinet-making business. John dropped the final ‘n’ because during the first war it was more comfortable to look Dutch than German; at school he was persecuted as a German spy. Except when signing the marriage register he stuck thenceforth to the shorter spelling, though his father chid him for it. As late as 1976 the son said he felt that as one held to be German he hadn’t ‘any right to be in this country’. T.S. Eliot, who taught him for a while at school, would sign himself ‘Metoikos’, and it seems that in this, though in few other respects, Eliot and Betjeman shared a feeling. As a matter of fact, the Betjemann family seems to have been settled in London from 1797 on. It was not without talent – its various branches produced musicians as well as drunkards and wastrels. The poet’s great-grandfather invented the locked tantalus, to keep the servants from the drink, but unwisely carried a key, and died at 34 of ‘the things he was locking up’. This somehow sounds more English than German, but in some matters reassurance is not to be had.

When his very grand mother-in-law described him as a middle-class Dutchman, he must have thought himself out of the frying-pan into the fire: still a despised European. It made things worse that he detested abroad; Osbert Lancaster said that Betjeman abroad had to be surrounded by friends, like a rugby player who has lost his shorts. He also disliked Betjemann, who, though a man of parts, was at times quarrelsome and censorious.

Mr Hillier’s book is stuffed with detail about family and school. Born at Gospel Oak, Betjeman moved up with his parents to better-off West Hill; fans will remember his touching invocation of the house there (‘Deeply I loved thee, 31 West Hill!’), as well as some very subtle verses (‘Lissenden Mansions! And my memory sifts/Lilies from lily-like electric lights’). A bit more information on this period is welcome, though at times one cannot help asking fretfully whether we really need to know this much about Betjeman. Hillier acknowledges what, if Martin Gilbert had been a shade less thorough, might be a record number of helpers and informants. Flagging only in the last stretch of the alphabet, they range from Sir Harold Acton to Douglas Woodruff, and like his subject the author has evidently ‘made it his business to know people whom he thought worth knowing’. He dissociates himself from what he calls ‘the vacuum-cleaner school’ of biographers, but remains defiant about the length of this volume, advising us to look elsewhere if we seek not ‘a fully-fleshed portrait’ but ‘a deck-chair book on Betjeman’.

At West Hill the poet, an only child, consoled himself as best he could with his teddy-bear, and, quite in the tradition, owed to a sombre nursemaid his terror of hell and the devil. Occasionally he went farther up the hill and the social scale to The Grove, Highgate, where once, at the end of a children’s party, he heard the hostess describe him as ‘that strange, rather common little boy’, just the kind of thing he would make a poem about, and strongly confirming his opinion that by birth his place was, sadly, only about half-way up the hill.

As a schoolboy he was already a poet, and confidently predicted for himself a poet’s career. Some of his earliest pieces sound quite like his later work, though teacher Eliot did not admire them. He was not an industrious pupil, and claimed only that Highgate Junior taught him how to get round people, how to lie, how ‘to show off just enough to attract attention but not so much as to attract unwelcome attention’, and also to mistrust human beings. He went on to the Dragon School, where his fellows included Hugh Gaitskell and J.P. Mallalieu, who once challenged him to a fight but honourably accepted Betjeman’s mendacious excuse that his mater was very ill. He now began his acting career as the maid Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, with Mallalieu as Edith and Gaitskell as Chorus of Police. He was already exploring churches; the set of his interest seems not to have changed much after his schooldays.

His parents moved to Chelsea, and ‘the budding bard”, as his father satirically called him, to Marlborough, a school remembered by more than one witness as, at that time, ‘the most awful barbarous place ... it was extraordinary that people were willing to pay large sums to subject their children to it.’ The bard was duly tormented. Some comfort could have been derived from the reflection that the rigours of school were a good preparation for those of the social life to come, but more immediate relief was available from schoolfellows such as Louis MacNeice, T.C. Worsley, Ellis Waterhouse and Anthony Blunt. The school magazine printed his poems, he played Puck, and Maria in Twelfth Night; he had love affairs, and was recognised as an aesthete. The best evidence of aestheticism was his refusal, when the postage was reduced from 2½d to 2d in 1924, to use the new and cheaper orange stamp, which clashed with his envelopes: he continued to use the expensive, matching blue.

One of his elegantly-enveloped letters was addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, whose verses Betjeman admired. Betjemann discovered this fact, and felt obliged to explain to his odd and difficult son that his correspondent was a bugger – that is, one of those men who ‘work themselves up into such a state of mutual admiration that one puts his piss-pipe up the other one’s arse’. Betjeman claims to have been shattered by this revelation, as well he might have been.

After school, Oxford was, as usual, a great relief. ‘First college rooms, a kingdom of my own.’ Influence got him into Magdalen, and droll charm into a famously smart set. He spent Betjemann’s money, loathed his tutor, C.S. Lewis: ‘What’s wrong with you, Betjeman, is that you’ve no starl. No sense of starl.’ He was taken up by Maurice Bowra, and through him grew friendly with Kenneth Clark, John Sparrow, Henry Yorke, Alan Pryce-Jones, Osbert Lancaster, Robert Byron, Anthony Powell, Peter Quennell, Tom Driberg, Harold Acton, Christopher Sykes, Randolph Churchill, W.H. Auden, and lots of others, including Gaitskell once more (‘Hugh, may I stroke your bottom?’ ‘Oh, I suppose so, if you must’). With Auden he went to bed; also, according to Hillier (citing Peter Quennell), he collaborated with him and MacNeice in the composition of what Driberg described as ‘the shortest erotic poem in the language’, which Hillier gives as follows:

I sometimes think that I should like
To be the saddle of a bike.

But this story cannot be quite true. Auden quotes the poem in Letters from Iceland in this form,

I think that I would rather like
To be the saddle of a bike,

and calls it ‘a touching little cri de coeur made by a friend’, so evidently he claimed no part in its writing; also he attributes it to a single author. Auden mentions an Icelandic variant, ‘in terms of horses’.

All these Oxford friends were very clever, and above all rejoiced in their new freedom. Betjeman was as famous as any of them, writing for Isis and Cherwell, becoming known as the naughty boy of OUDS, and as an expert on architecture and high society. He caught the mood of elegant libertinism and sheer privilege. To be sent down wasn’t a serious problem; you could get work on the London Mercury (Alan Pryce-Jones), or, in Betjeman’s own case, Bowra would help you to get fixed up at the Architectural Review. If all else failed, there was the safety-net of the educational agency referred to by Auden as ‘Rabbitarse and String’. It was, in fact, through them that Betjeman was enabled to spend some time as an eccentric prep-school teacher (£30 a term plus board). During the week he suffered the little children, occasionally engaging in venomous feuds with them; at weekends he would be off to various grand houses, which grew even more accessible after his appointment to the Architectural Review.

One such house, which happened to be near Oxford, was rented by Maurice Hastings, a man described by James Lees-Milne as ‘a capricious alcoholic ... rich, clever and slightly mad’. Hastings would lash his landlord’s family portraits, which were by Kneller, with a hunting crop, and fire his rifle at the private parts of the garden statues. Lees-Milne was so shocked at this behaviour that he vowed there and then to devote his life to the preservation of English country houses – one of the more permanent conversions in an age when briefer ones were not uncommon. However, it was by no means compulsory to disapprove of Hastings, and Bowra would bring undergraduates to the house, where they might observe its monocled and drunken master ‘put his hunter to the dining-room table, when it was fully charged with silver and crystal, and jump it’. So Alan Pryce-Jones, who adds that their host would attack his guests in the corridors, while his wife hid, sobbing, under a bed. Betjeman often visited, with Bowra and Pryce-Jones; Hastings responded to his charm, and since his father owned, and his brother edited, the Architectural Review, these visits were as decisive for Betjeman as they had been for Lees-Milne. Leaving the schoolroom behind, he went to the Review at the fairly handsome salary of £300, and in his very individual way made a great success of the job, though presenting himself to the world as an idle joker. One practical joke is here described at length, and in two separate versions.

Out of office hours he lived in the gossip column world. He fell in love with several high-born Angela-Brazil-like girls. There are some religious undertones, but as far as possible life was a continuation of the ‘endless party’ of Oxford. Astutely making friends with J.C. Squire, he got into the London Mercury and the New Statesman. His first book of poems. Mount Zion, was published in 1931, gorgeously; it was paid for by a friend. Betjeman carefully arranged a claque of reviewers. He did not care for criticism: when Geoffrey Grigson at New Verse turned down his poem about the arrest of Oscar Wilde he stood on the backside of the White Horse at Uffington and cursed him.

In these years he must, despite all the appearances, have been working extremely hard. His output included newspaper gossip, profiles, film criticism, articles about houses, trains and timetables. His pursuit of girls culminated in his courtship of Penelope Chetwode, daughter of a Field Marshal, and his marriage to her forms the final chapter and grand climax of this volume. It does make an interesting story. They were an oddly assorted couple, yet truly compatible. She was a learned archaeologist, but also enormously patrician. Her parents thought the very idea of marrying the middle-class Dutchman absurd (‘we ask people like that to our houses, but we don’t marry them’), but the children were clearly in love, though tending to communicate by mutual insult, in mock-Irish with the nastier words in Greek script; he was, with this degree of concealment, named Dung or Filth or Poofy. Lady Penelope commented affectionately on her lover’s green teeth and his smell. He irritated her parents by ostentatiously wearing a made-up white tie, which he snapped back and forth on its elastic.

After many vicissitudes there was a secret marriage, and after many more peace was established with the Field Marshal and his lady. Betjeman had put himself into a position where he was bound to be snubbed – as Hillier notes, he had from childhood put himself into such positions, almost treasuring his rebuffs – and yet, as was his wont, proved that ‘this shabby, shambling figure was tougher’ than the snubbers.

Hillier was manifestly well qualified to write this book, having a mastery of architectural detail and much affection for his weirdly attractive subject, so much the product of a particular time and place, yet so unlike anybody else. Betjeman’s influence is not to be doubted, though there could be argument about the degree to which it was beneficial. It must mean something that for all his oddness and erudition he became a sort of national pet, a TV personality, a poet who ignored not only the Modernist canon but the un-Modernist one as well, and an expert who could make people look closely at familiar or forgotten buildings and objects. Here was a personality neither Dutch or German – the echt-English exponent of an upper-class bohemianism impossible elsewhere.