In the wake of Bevis Hillier's three volumes, a bumper selection of letters, a three-part TV extravaganza and a centenary celebration fit to overwhelm the frequencies of Radios 3 and 4, the casual onlooker might be forgiven for assuming that there is not much more to be said about Sir John Betjeman. Gratifyingly, AN Wilson's portrait comes at Betjeman's poetry - in the end, the only thing that makes poets interesting - from all kinds of unexpected angles, while exposing the emotional life that coursed beneath it with an altogether painful clarity. Fellow-feeling lurks at every corner, and experienced Wilson-fanciers will find a particular resonance in the line about his subject discovering "the perhaps dangerous ease with which a clever person can make money out of journalism".
From its earliest days, in gilded post-Waugh era Oxford, Betjeman's career rested on a talent for relentless self-projection. One of the strengths of Betjeman is Wilson's feel for the way in which this bandwagon gathered pace in the 1930s. Sent down from Oxford ("You'd have only got a Third," his tutor CS Lewis briskly informed him), kept afloat by prep-school mastering and finally fixed up with a job at the Architectural Review, Betjeman had the good fortune to be sustained by a collection of moneyed young exquisites, led by Bryan Guinness and his wife Diana (later Mosley), who made it their business to talk up his prospects to likely-looking sponsors.
This pageant of high-powered wire-pulling was adroitly stage-managed by Betjeman himself. Despite, or perhaps because of, his social disadvantages - his father was an upwardly mobile cabinet-maker - and personal shortcomings symbolised by a preference for mackintoshes and unbrushed teeth, he was a notably sharp operator. A middle-class boy on the make - the obvious comparison is with Evelyn Waugh - he mixed genuine promise with the role of court jester to a upper-class audience. Such trajectories nearly always acquire a dense mythological gloss; another of Wilson's achievements is to debunk some of the legends that attached themselves to the much-loved Poet Laureate after his death.
Thus Ernie Betjeman, characterised by his son's crony Alan Pryce-Jones as a "tyrant", emerges as a far from domineering figure, first pictured reading to the infant John from Goldsmith's Deserted Village. For Lewis, to whom the undergraduate Betjeman is supposed to have lamented: "I can't decide whether to be a High Church clergyman with a short lacy surplice or a very Low Church clergyman with long grey moustaches", to have put up with him for more than a couple of tutorials was clearly an act of startling charity.
Even the routinely disparaged Field Marshall Lord Chetwode, whose daughter Penelope Betjeman married in 1933, comes across as a sympathetic parent, rightfully exasperated by his son-in-law's habit of performing funny imitations of the Chetwodes at parties. Penelope had her own troubles with Betjeman's regular hankerings - not always platonic - after enticing young women he met in offices or running wartime canteens.
If Betjeman was sometimes a victim of snobbery, he was also capable of practising the art himself. Reading about the friendly bombs enjoined to fall on Slough, you feel like yelling out that it isn't the suburbanite's fault that he has to live in a suburb. In analysing some of the better-known poems, Wilson is very good at showing the contending levels on which they operate - mild mockery often shading into sympathetic yearning, final judgment hanging out of reach.
At their core lay a profound and profoundly unsettling commitment to the Christian faith, which, while offering an architectural ground-plan for Betjeman's life, combined with his vacillating temperament to produce a three-way relationship with wife and long-term mistress from which none of the parties could ever extricate themselves.
A bit light on biographical detail, and occasionally faintly error-prone - Betjeman's old Marlborough friend was called John Bowle, Anthony Powell managed a Third at Oxford, Aldershot is in Hampshire and Ashby-de-la-Zouche in Leicestershire - this is nevertheless an A-grade demonstration of the point of Betjeman, the vast constituencies to which he appealed and the area of English life that he made his own. If Wilson's real achievement is to show that much of this acclaim was fundamentally non-literary in origin, then plenty of other 20th-century English literary figures have ended up esteemed for their personae rather than their words. There are worse cults than the strew of hockey-girls, teddy bears, deserted fonts and trains steaming on into Metroland.
DJ Taylor's latest novel is 'Kept' (Chatto & Windus)Reuse content