The Undesired Result

Gillian Darley

  • Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter by Bevis Hillier
    Murray, 744 pp, £25.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7195 6495 6

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?

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[*] See Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner, edited by Peter Draper (Ashgate, 262 pp., £ 55, May 2004, 0 7546 3582 1).