BOOK REVIEW / Friendly bombs: John Betjeman's letters reveal the rich array of his interests; high camp, dim peers, lifelong friendships, pastiche, laughter and disguises

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'OBSCURITY' was John Betjeman's nickname for his friend H de Cronin Hastings, a man so shy that he once gave a lecture with his back to the audience. It was a sobriquet that might more justly have been applied to Betjeman himself, who wasn't especially shy, but who was drawn instinctively to anything obscure - be it a poet, an architect, an Irish peer or a 19th-century religious sect. The only letter preserved here from his years at Marlborough College is to a descendant of the poet Charles Dibdin, requesting information about the work of Charles's even less well-known son Charles Isaac Mungo Dibdin, and ending with a query about Dibdin's junior novel Isn't It Odd? It seems a pertinent title.

This first volume of Betjeman's letters takes him up to the age of 45 and charts the emergence of a personality that is both artificial and authentic. As a poet Betjeman made himself up out of writers he absorbed as a child - Tennyson, certainly, but also lesser figures such as Thomas Moore and Newbolt, all poets with an ear, which to his mimicking and assimilatory mind was the essential poetic gift.

Much of Betjeman's early work is pastiche, and throughout his life he could slip happily into the manner of Regency vers de societe or the eye-

rolling comic horror of the Ingoldsby Legends. There is something classically camp in this, a blend of mockery and celebration; but it is also disconcertingly sincere. Betjeman was so steeped in the past that its manners came naturally and sweetly to him: he saw things afresh, but found the old-fashioned ways of putting them not only adequate but preferable for their rich charge of custom, irony and association. Hence the characteristic blend of innocence and knowingness in his poems. For Betjeman, ventriloquism was a way of being himself.

A similar self-construction takes place on the social level. Betjeman was an only child, which accounts in part for his intense absorption in the past: it is hardly surprising that from school on he would spring to the defence of old buildings, since they formed a vital part of his imaginative habitat. At Marlborough he had been provocatively aesthetic (in the company of Louis MacNeice and Anthony Blunt), and developed the protective high colouring of extravagance: he would be a character, he would be defiantly extraordinary. At Oxford (again thinly represented in the Letters) he gravitated towards a wealthy and aristocratic in-group, and came into focus as an unapologetic social climber. His self-liberation involved repudiation of his sternly devoted cocktail-cabinet- making father Ernest, who as 'Ernie' became the subject of uncomfortable comic routines. The note of unease, of guilt turned to frivolity, is heard too in his relations with his tutor at Magdalen, C S Lewis: there is a long, calmly furious letter to him here, written more than 10 years after Betjeman went down without a degree, in which he seeks to unravel his 'personal antipathy' to his teacher and explain 'the mess I made at Oxford'. It seems unlikely it was ever sent.

The crucial experience of Oxford was that of making friends. Candida Lycett Green's insistence that all her father's friendships were both instantaneous and lifelong seems at first unduly blithe; but the book suggests that she is right. The letters are slow to make it plain, but Betjeman was a very attractive man. Not physically, perhaps - his fiancee Penelope Chetwode would write to him about his 'green teeth', and in several of the oddly talentless drawings that adorn the letters he depicts himself as a bald and stubbly old tramp. But he was obviously captivating in other ways - and maybe in that way too. The secret was simple but deep, and lay in his ability to make others laugh - a motif that resounds through this book as persistently as church bells do through his poems.

When it come to love letters, to Camilla Russell, Billa Cresswell and Penelope herself, the laughs are worked for rather hard. There is a determinedly larkish atmosphere, funny voices, governessy asides ('have you washed your face child?'), stage Oirish transliterated into Greek. The Camilla Russell letters are noticeably full of enjoyment of the separations they pretend to deplore. There is a kind of relieved outrage at being apart that before long slides easily into letting go.

It seems fitting that when he did become engaged, to the daughter of profoundly disapproving parents, the circumstances were akin to farce. After their secret engagement, Penelope went to India, and in her absence he had an affair with Billa Cresswell, to whom he also became secretly engaged. Penelope returned and they were (again secretly) married, before Penelope left for three months in Berlin, during which time Betjeman found himself having an affair with a girl called Molly Higgins. It took Penelope's insouciance and sturdiness (the most admired quality of the 'Betjeman girl') to save the situation: 'I hope you'll be happy with me but if you aren't you can always go off with MH', she wrote from Germany. A letter from Betjeman to Patrick Balfour reveals the unprecedented pain these tergiversations caused: 'I did not think I was capable of so much emotion.'

It is in letters to Balfour and Alan Pryce-Jones that he touches intriguingly on the homosexual side of his younger life, reminding Pryce-Jones to explain to his fiancee that he was once 'inverted' - 'Actually inversion is an additional charm. It worked very well with Philth (Penelope)' - and sending teasy notes to Balfour from the masters' common room of Heddon Court school: 'My dear Patrick, The enclosed is an eyelash of one of the boys.' Balfour is advised 'if you are still of my way of thinking in your private moments' to go to the Alexandra Palace roller-skating rink, where he had discovered that there were 'without exaggeration, no less than five hundred cups of tea'. On a reluctant visit to Bonn he tells his friend he has never wanted to drink tea so much: 'it is waiting steaming hot'. Candida Lycett Green notes that 'cup of tea' was a code-word for 'boy', but says nothing more on the subject.

If the impression of emotional uncertainty is strong, so is our fresh awareness of Betjeman's achievement. In his mid-twenties, assistant editor of the Architectural Review, founder of the Shell Guides, he is already embarked on the public crusade for the understanding and saving of old buildings that was to be his most important contribution to British life. Campaigning for the preservation of Carlton House Terrace in 1933 he is vigorous, lucid and completely in command of his arguments. His interest at this time is predominantly in the reigns of George III and IV; it was only later that the focus of the campaign was to move to the High Victorian period with which Betjeman is now most associated.

When the war came, Betjeman went as press attache to the British Ambassador in Dublin. When he first stayed in his rich friends' sham Gothic castles in Ireland he professed himself 'in heaven'; Ireland was a fantasy-land to him, preserved in the Romantic forms and phraseology of his favourite period, and spectrally inhabited by the obscure peers who became one of his drollest obsessions. But he found his two years there from 1941 to 1943 exhausting and futile (though everyone else reckoned him a success), and he hankered for England with the note of almost Larkinian xenophobia which recurs throughout the book. A letter to John Piper containing doodles of church furnishings and accounts of fathomlessly obscure poets that he is researching hints at the steady inner resource of his enthusiasms; just as, at what is really the book's crisis, his wife's conversion to Catholicism, he admits 'I am shocked to find how easily I can be consoled by place'.

None the less the pain was evidently intense. There was already a mood of jokey anxiety about Penelope's 'becoming more eccentric than ever', but in the late 1940s the drift became a rift. 'Religious difference kills family affection, that is the tragedy of this event at present,' he wrote. Yet it was a tragedy they lived through. There is a very affecting exchange of letters, in which they both try to assess the damage and minimise its effects, signed with private nicknames, 'Yours very truly'. There is also a moving unpublished sonnet, imagining them worshipping at their separate churches: 'In the Perspective of Eternity / The pain is nothing - but, ah God, in Time'.

Betjeman wasn't a particularly literary or self-conscious letter-writer, but the letters here, to a crowded gallery of friends, are fascinating performances even so, full of jokes and disguises, sometimes signed George Crabbe or G K Chesterton, introducing fictitious characters into accounts of real events, or sliding into nonsense in the midst of business. A very funny strand relates to the exploits of his teddy-bear Archibald as a clergyman: 'Archibald has accepted a call to the Congregational Church on Wanstead Flats where he has been doing the duty of a lay reader for some years'; 'Archie is very well and pro-Hitler, I am sorry to say'. The patched bear's presence adds to the experience of seeing a world fantasticated through an eccentric but oddly coherent mind.

Candida Lycett Green makes rather a thing of not being an expert editor; her footnotes, describing someone as 'faintly off her head', 'a howling success' or 'driven barmy', can be irritating and often fail to satisfy our curiosity about points in the letters. But those chapter introductions which draw on her own childhood memory are both touching and telling, and vividly recreate family life in the huge unheated Rectory at the top of the Berkshire Downs. The account is warmed by affection and nostalgia, which are proper Betjemanesque attributes; and the edition is itself a return of the love that its subject radiated. We fall in with it because we find ourselves loving him too. It would have been a different book in the hands of a more scholarly and objective editor, but not necessarily a better one.

By the book's close Betjeman is an established figure, a prolific broadcaster and journalist, server on diocesan committees, campaigner and newly respected poet. His first Collected Poems had come out in 1950, and his peculiar authenticity was being acknowledged. 'It's a great relief to me,' he tells Hugh Walpole, 'to be taken as a poet at last and not as a sort of Sitwellian AP Herbert.' His most popular poems - 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough', 'Phone for the fish-knives, Norman' - were those by which he set least store. He insisted that his gift wasn't for satire at all: his real triumph was to have distilled from the teeming obscurity of his learning and memory the clear expressions of what he called 'unadulterated me'.

'John Betjeman: Letters: Volume One: 1926 to 1951', edited & introduced by Candida Lycett Green, Methuen pounds 20

(Photograph omitted)