Christina Patterson: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

"Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans./ spare their women for Thy Sake,/ And if that is not too easy/ We will pardon Thy Mistake./ But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,/ Don't let anyone bomb me." If the Israeli government is looking for a poetic anthem for these times, it could do much worse than this poem - swapping the word "Germans" for "Lebanese", of course - written by an English poet during the Second World War.

The poet was one not known for his military enthusiasms. He was, in fact, John Betjeman, beloved Poet Laureate, the bestselling poet since Tennyson and the man who famously wished that that he had had more sex. This man, devoted to churches, hot buttered toast, big, strapping girls and (Olmert please note) satire might, it's true, make an unlikely poster boy for one of the world's most bellicose nations. He makes an unlikely poster boy for most things, these days, but the man once dubbed "teddy-bear to the nation" is set for a revival.

That, at least, is the idea. To mark the centenary of his birth this month, Betjemanites are planning a panoply of poetic activities and publications. In addition to a "loco-naming ceremony" at Liverpool Street, themed exhibitions at the Bodleian and the British Library, concerts, guided walks and the unveiling of a blue plaque, there will be a series of radio and TV programmes celebrating the life and work of one of the best-loved broadcasters in history. John Murray is publishing several new editions of his poems, a collection of his radio talks and an abridged version of Bevis Hillier's magisterial three-volume biography. There will be a new biography by A N Wilson and, perhaps predictably, centenary tea-towels and mugs.

And, if this festive flurry filters into a news-starved August, there will be a revival of the old debates. Was this man, who slept with his teddy-bear until his death at 78, a whimsical, snobbish, peddler of trivial light verse, Victorian values and a nauseating brand of nostalgia or was he, as Philip Larkin thought, "a writer of talent and intelligence" who was also "like the fool that speaks the truth through jokes"?

Well, the truth, as always, is complex. No one can deny the clarity of his work, and its distinctly non-Modernist celebration of traditional forms. But this is poetry shot through, at every level, with irony and a profound anxiety about identity. The man who extolled the athletic charms of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn was no Victorian patriarch, but a bisexual who spent the last years of his life with his mistress. The man obsessed with the English ruling classes worried all his life about his German name and his roots in "trade". And no one who reads the rest of "In Westminster Abbey", that prayer begging the "Gracious Lord" to keep bombs away and "protect the whites", can doubt that this is a poetry preoccupied with a changing world.

"Think of what our Nation stands for," the poem continues, "Books from Boots' and country lanes,/ Free speech, free passes, class distinction,/ Democracy and proper drains." Sixty-odd years on, that nation has changed. In the age of Dan Brown, perhaps we too can indulge in a little nostalgia. Not for "books from Boots", but for an age in which a writer of finely crafted verse managed to reach a mass audience, a writer whose subject-matter was not angels and demons, but love, death and the stuff of everyday life. That, surely, is worth the odd centenary mug.

Boyd Tonkin is away

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