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

"This week I had my fiftieth birthday,'' John Betjeman wrote in the Spectator in August 1956. "I started reviewing my past life, first through a magnifying mist of self-pity - never quite made the grade, not taken seriously in the Times Literary Supplement, Penguin Books, the Courtauld, the Warburg, the Listener, the University Appointments Board, the Museums Association, the Library Association, the Institute of Sanitary Engineers. I thought of the many people at school with me who were now knights and politicians. I wanted to cry.''

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot