BOOKS: LIVES & LETTERS: A deep understanding of Croydon

LETTERS OF JOHN BETJEMAN Volume II, 1951-84 ed Candida Lycett- Green, Methuen pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
JOHN BETJEMAN occupies a unique position in the British psyche, a comforting dreamland of fire-lit nurseries, teddies and tea, suburban gardens, country stations, seaside holidays and golf. He presented himself as the common man of middle England, middle-aged, middle class, yet not so much vox populi as vox humana. Philip Larkin praised him for restoring "direct intelligible communication to poetry". Through the many films he made for television Betjeman reached the hearts and minds of millions more who might never read a poem but who felt that they knew him and shared in his delights. His modest aim was to make people use their eyes, show them "things which are beautiful so that they will very soon realise what is ugly". To Mary Wilson he confided "your tastes are like mine in the Arts - and I think, though few will admit it, like most people's". "You understand things like Croydon as no one else would," wrote his secretary. Through his enthusiasms he conferred a special validity upon decent, unambitious provincial lives. "Eastbourne forever" he wrote to Cyril Connolly.

This second volume of letters selected by Betjeman's daughter completes the impressionistic biography and portrait which she proposed in the first; again it is richly supplemented by her own connecting passages of narrative. The period spans his vast success and fame as a poet, with his 1958 Collected Poems selling a thousand copies a day - "what ho! I never remember such a dance since we published Byron's Childe Harold in 1812," exulted his publisher Jock Murray - and includes his involvement in countless committees, writing columns and reviews, making films, lecturing at home and abroad and, most years, producing a new book of poems or prose.

But in 1972, when he became Poet Laureate, he was already suffering from Parkinson's disease. He struggled against depression and a melancholy which he believed had entered his life in childhood with the Tales of Hans Andersen. Despite his efforts during the Sixties, much of the London he had loved was destroyed; Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange were gone; reluctantly he saw Liverpool now as England's architectural capital. His wife, the astonishing Penelope Chetwode, was increasingly away abroad, riding across India and researching her own books; their son and daughter were grown and the family home in Wantage had been sold. A cold wind blew through the tamarisks. He wrote to Penelope of death and of road drills; she wrote back describing buffalo racing. "She likes me, but I am not essential to her," he concluded. Elizabeth Cavendish, his "other wife", provided the loving domestic life he missed so much. Candida Lycett-Green's treatment of her father's relationships with these two remarkable women is a model of clear-eyed affection and good sense. They complemented each other; "as his daughter I found the situation completely without conflict."

Betjeman received hundreds of letters each week and he answered them all, writing a minimum of 30 a day. He corresponds here with children, priests and fellow writers, with bureaucrats and most movingly with his family and legions of friends. Some of these letters are repetitive in content, pleas for the preservation of buildings, branchlines, churchyards, but they give a glimpse of the time and effort Betjeman expended. Most striking is his generosity to others, his unfailing encouragement and his personal modesty. Constantly he plays down the value of his own writing; Ardizzone's illustrations for his Ring of Bells "are the verse; they are better than the verse". It is clear that this is no false modesty.

He needed to write as he needed to pray, but he wrote very slowly, re- wrote and re-wrote, reading aloud as he went, crafting his poems with an urgent meticulousness which belies their apparent simplicity. Like many writers he had a deep sense of fraudulence and a fear that one day he would be caught out; he took to heart adverse criticism and was unconvinced by praise. "Reviews don't count. Publishers' travellers are the only people who really sell a book." And beyond self-doubt lay a greater dread: "Never a day goes by without my thinking of my death and the lonely journey into eternity - will it be a journey or will it be blank nothingness?" In the last 10 years of his life, as so many friends died, his letters affirm a belief in the afterlife, yet this was not a comfort which he could always offer to himself. Faith seems intermittent rather than constant. But it is good to read that after a nightmare once he awoke into knowledge of the love of God "like a warm bath".

Nonetheless, the prevailing mood of these letters is not one of gloom. Despite inner misgivings, failing health and financial worries, Betjeman radiates warmth, love and merriment. He writes a ballad to Deborah Devonshire that begins "O Come wi' me tae Scratchwood". "For some reason (unknown to me) I reminded him of the service station just north of London called Scratchwood," the Duchess confesses. There are also riveting references to his wife: "Penelope is off her head and very active. There is a new kind of golf ball called Spalding Top Flight and the ones with black dots look exactly like her." A lady in a sports shop remembers Betjeman declining to buy this brand, explaining that this resemblance would make them unusable.

Candida Lycett-Green matches her father in wit and generosity of spirit. Her descriptions of family life and of his final illness are intensely moving. These two volumes of letters are a brave and mighty labour of love; they have nothing to do with criticism and everything to do with true filial piety. Betjeman's image beams out from the photographs and his unanswered question lingers: "What are we all here for if not for laughter and to see each other again?"