BOOK REVIEW / Something to hurroosh for: 'John Betjeman: Letters Vol I (1926-51)' Ed. Candida Lycett Green: Methuen, 20 pounds
Saturday 21 May 1994
Betjeman must have been the most marvellous friend. There are dozens of letters to Barnes and his family in this book, all of them exuberant and affectionate, many hilarious, and most of them bearing spoof signatures - Beverly Nichols, Darenth, Tambimuttu, Alf Hobson, Howard Output, Sean O'Betjeman and 'your loving aunt Irene Vanbrugh'. Only one is serious and marked Intensely Private, but then the subject was the careful preservation of Victorian churches, something he cared passionately about.
These letters show Betjeman to have been a complex, clever, gentle and intensely kind man, endlessly generous in his willingness to encourage other writers. Not only did he express interest in young hopefuls who sent him their poems, he was unstinting in his praise of the books written by better-established authors, which lesser men might have found harder. To Evelyn Waugh he wrote, 'Just a line, as we say here, to tell you are the greatest living novelist'; to TS Eliot, 'I wish I were a great man like you are'; to Orwell, 'I have always thought you are one of the last living writers of prose. Don't bother to reply to this. It's a Collins'. As William Plomer marvelled, 'I don't know when anybody has taken such trouble as you have done to tell a creature of his responses to the creature's book.'
Sometimes he used a typewriter, explaining that 'my typing, though inaccurate, is sincere.' More often it was an almost illegible scrawl that sometimes not even he - not even God, he said - could read. He decorated his pages with highly idiosyncratic drawings of buildings, people and his teddy-bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, whose strict Baptist views were often regretfully reported. 'Archie has accepted a call to the Congregational Church at Wanstead Flats . . . is interested in temperance work at Clacton- on-sea . . . has accepted the incumbency of Raum's Episcopal Chapel.' Eventually Archie declared himself to be pro-Hitler: 'It is Nuremberg manufacture that must have done it.'
There are love-letters here, too: innocent, elated outpourings to girls called Milla and Billa (to some of whom he became briefly engaged), and sparkling, witty numbers to several Mitford sisters. To Nancy he wrote 'If Pamela refuses me finally, you might marry me. I'm rich, handsome and aristocratic.' Eventually Penelope Chetwode decided to take on the challenge of marrying him, despite his being not quite classy enough for her parents' taste. (There is a nice story, not mentioned here, of Penelope's father deciding that if this person, Mr Bargeman, had to be his son-in- law, he would have to let him call him something less formal than Sir. Rejecting Philip as absurdly familiar, he eventually settled for Field Marshal.)
Betjeman addressed Penelope by many nicknames, most often Propeller, and was, these letters show, stormily, noisily and extravagantly happy with her. When they had been married for 16 years, he wrote to tell her that she was still more important to him than anything else: 'I have always prayed in my heart that I will die before you because I feel that I could not live without you.'
The letters have been chosen by Betjeman's daughter, who was clearly devoted to him. There must be a suspicion that she decided to omit any that might put him in a bad light, but it is a suspicion that is hard to sustain. He is seen to be capable of disliking people, particularly Stephen Spender and C S Lewis, but his general ebullience and sense of self-mockery rapidly overcome any bitterness. 'I am a coward to the very core in everything . . . the tired old prima donna of the early thirties . . . I always feel I am old-fashioned and trivial . . . what a bore I am . . . P S I am now a wine-snob.'
Candida Lycett Green introduces each section with a short biographical essay, based at first on other people's memories of him, later on her own. These are a rich source of delight. There are stories of the German maid who lived for almost a year under the impression that his name was 'shut up' because Penelope said it to him so often; of the Irish girl called Maeve who poured holy water over the bonnet of his Vauxhall in an effort to start it; of the dress designer Schiaparelli visiting and being forced to buy second-hand clothes at the vicarage jumble sale. One man remembers him wobbling, terrified, at the top of a ladder wailing 'I've got impetigo' and his secretary remembers his dread of getting marmalade between his wrists and cuffs, which always made him jump up and shout, 'Oh God] Oh God]'
As a father, Betjeman could be maddening, particularly when he insisted on visiting countless old churches on the way to Cornwall for family holidays. Yet he must also have been tremendous fun. A letter to the seven-year-old Candida is decorated with drawings of fairies, 'but I think they are witches pretending to be fairies'. She says that it took years before she realised that his nursery rhymes were different from other people's - years of singing 'Ba ba centipede have you any jelly? No sir, no sir, it's all gone smelly'.
This first volume contains the letters of a young, affectionate, optimistic man, markedly different from the more Hitchcockian figure of his laureateship. This Betjeman is, above all, an enthusiast. In Dublin, during the war, Frank Gallagher put it into Irish. Betjeman, he said, found 'something to hurroosh for in all of us'.
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