BOOK REVIEW / Bung ho, old top!
Peter Parker finds anxiety, guilt and laughter in the correspondence of a lovable Laureate; John Betjeman: Letters, Vol. 2, 1951-84 edited by Candida Lycett Green Methuen, pounds 20
Saturday 07 October 1995
By the end of his life, Betjeman had undoubtedly made the grade, serving on innumerable committees, in constant demand as a journalist and broadcaster, knighted and appointed Poet Laureate. He may not have made it to the Institute of Sanitary Engineers, but Penguin eventually published a selection of his work. If other poets of the century have been more admired, none has been more loved, and it was rightly said at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey that his death had "eclipsed the gaiety of nations''.
In spite of the esteem and affection in which Betjeman was held, and in spite of his propensity for epistolary ebullience ("Bung ho, old top!"), this second volume of his letters is darker than the first. Fame brought its own burdens, complications in his personal life brought anxiety and guilt, age brought illness and death. The popular image of Betjeman derives from his frequent appearances on television; a shambling figure in mackintosh and battered hat making agreeable tours of town and country, sharing his delight in England and Englishness. Although making documentaries was perhaps Betjeman's favourite job, the notion of him as an amiable flaneur with time on his hands is rapidly dispelled by this book. Candida Lycett Green even suggests that the amount of work he took on exacerbated the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.
Much of this work involved correspondence: by the late Sixties he was receiving some 300 letters a week. He insisted upon replying to every one and employed a succession of secretaries, finding these among young women, with whom he shamelessly flirted, and members of the clergy who had been in a "bit of trouble". He spent as much time writing to "dud poets and self-pitying pests'', as one secretary characterised many correspondents, as he did to architects, planners and other miscreants. "I have written thirty-three letters today,'' he once told his daughter, "which is why this one is so dull.'' I doubt that it was, for even the briefest notes reproduced in this volume are enlivened by Betjeman's zest for life.
As with all well-edited volumes of letters, Lycett Green's add up to a sort of biography. This second volume is particularly welcome since Bevis Hillier's authorised biography, The Young Betjeman, takes us only to 1933. The 50-year embargo placed on the poet's letters to Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, the woman with whom he shared much of his life after 1951, will undoubtedly hamper the task of writing about the older Betjeman, and Lycett Green acknowledges that the absence of these letters leaves a "chasm-like gap'' in her own book. She has nevertheless managed to bridge this in her excellent interlinking narrative, providing a frank but sympathetic account of her father's parallel relationships with the two most important people in his life. "Naturally I was jealous when he first got fond of you,'' Penelope Betjeman wrote to Lady Elizabeth when she became concerned about her husband's health in the early Seventies. "But over the years I have realised that from HIS point of view at any rate it has been a wonderful thing for him, as you are literary and I am not really, and you have provided the sort of companionship he needs and never really gets from me.'' Although Lycett Green comments that "the arrangement worked well and ninety-nine per cent of the friends of all three accepted it'', there is evidence in some letters of strain and upset, and it cannot have been easy for any of those involved.
Certain aspects of Betjeman's life are beyond the scope of this volume, of course. Many letters to Mary Wilson are included, but they reveal little about this important friendship, which remains as it always was, "completely private''. Mystery also shrouds Betjeman's relationship with his son, Paul, who appears to have gone to America at the earliest opportunity and remained there. "It was definitely harder for Paul to accept my parents' idiosyncrasies than it was for me,'' writes Lycett Green. "JB often behaved exactly in the same way to me as he did to Paul - but I took it to be the joke it was. I just told him to shut up. I don't think it was possible for my brother to do so.'' The only surviving letter to Paul bears bleak witness to the difficulties between father and son.
Candida Lycett Green's account of her father's increasing debility and death is almost unbearably moving. "He had a thing about going back to the pram,'' she writes, "and preferably being wheeled about by Myfanwy Piper.'' He ended up being wheeled about in a chair, and eventually died at home in his beloved Cornwall, with Elizabeth Cavendish at his side, "Stanley the cat asleep on his tummy'', and his teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby Gore (archaeologist, strict Baptist, and very easily shocked), tucked under one arm.
In spite of Betjeman's private sorrows, the abiding memory most people have of him is of laughter, and there is a great deal of comedy in these letters, much of it endearingly silly in an Edward Lear-like way. His whimsical humour and his sheer exuberance have often told against him, particularly with people who assume that to be serious one has to be solemn. Niklaus Pevsner, with whom Betjeman later had cordial relations, was initially anathematised as an exemplar of cheerless mittel-European scholarship. "It is no good trying to write a comprehensive, impersonal catalogue,'' he advised a contributor to his series of Shell Guides to the counties of England. "That is already being done in Pevsner's Buildings of England, and does not tell you what the place is really like.''
This commissioning letter is a model of its kind, as are his letters to the producers and directors of the many documentaries he made for television. "I don't think Telly is an art,'' he wrote in 1964, "but it is good illustrated journalism and the more one can show people good buildings ... the more there is an opportunity to make people use their eyes so that they can reject the flashily modernistic with which this country is afflicted. It is all one can do.'' That "all'' proved to be a great deal - with his infectious enthusiasm, he probably made people more aware and protective of architecture and landscape than any one else this century.
Although Lycett Green's textual editing is occasionally fussy (expanding every emphatic "v" to "v[ery]" both underestimates the intelligence of readers and holds up the onward, effervescent rush of the letters), her footnotes are both amusing and to the point, providing a wealth of additional information. Betjeman represented a very English sort of amateurism in the original and best sense of the word, and it is perfectly appropriate that this engrossing and touching book should be a labour of love rather than one of dry scholarship.
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