Betjeman: the Bonus of Laughter by Bevis Hillier

Cracks in the facade
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Bevis Hillier is an art connoisseur and has been a museum curator, so in a sense this isn't quite a book on John Betjeman. It's a huge exhibition devoted to the man and his times, with galleries and annexes taking up acres of space. The permissions fees alone must have been ruinous. Huge slabs of quotation rear up before us: James Lees-Milne, Anthony Burgess, Simon Jenkins, Kingsley Amis, Tom Driberg, etc. On and on they go, in a procession as colourful as Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee thanksgiving service, the dragooned recollections of critics, diarists, friends, enemies, and the reviewer from the Southern Evening Echo.

Betjeman (1906-1984) had his heart in the 19th century, and Hillier's three-volume biography - which this book concludes - embodies the zeal and mad self-confidence of the Crystal Palace, or an oil painting by WP Frith, or a steam turbine-driven vessel by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Young Betjeman (1988) had followed our hero from infancy in Highgate to Magdalen College, Oxford. He wasn't particularly nice: Hillier described a spoilt only child, an affected aesthete and snob who was gratuitously nasty to his long-suffering parents (of Dutch extraction). Next came New Fame, New Love (2002), where our hero settled into writing his poems, became a success, and undid his happiness and peace of mind by trying to co-exist with two incompatible women.

Penelope Chetwode, horse-mad and humorous, the barrel-shaped daughter of a Field Marshal, was his wife. Elizabeth Cavendish, a burly, bossy JP and daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, was his mistress, who took him over. One thinks of Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets, murmuring, "How happy could I be with either,/ Were t'other dear charmer away!"

Penelope lived in Berkshire, before moving to Hay-on-Wye with her horse Golliwog. "Wantage would be a very much happier place if everybody went about on mules," she believed. Lady Elizabeth resided in Radnor Walk, Chelsea, and at Chatsworth, Derbyshire. "Elizabeth has given up marriage and a family life with her own children out of a love for me," said Betjeman, rather pleased, who shuttled between the various residences, filling himself up histrionically with sensations of guilt and inadequacy. For some years he kept a bachelor flat at Cloth Fair, Smithfield, which burnt down.

In The Bonus of Laughter, the emotional entanglements are far from resolved. Penelope and her rival refused to meet and didn't speak to each other at the funeral, held in Trebetherick, Cornwall, where Betjeman had a holiday home. There were two wakes.

Complicating matters with Betjeman was the problem that he was homosexual, or inverted, as he would put it. He liked to ogle choirboys and bell-ringers and employed defrocked clergymen (who had had "a spot of trouble") as private secretaries. His greatest moment of ecstasy ("I was quite spent") was sex in a punt with a vicar's son.

Betjeman nevertheless had two children, Paul, a jazz saxophonist and Mormon, and Candida, who brilliantly edited her father's correspondence. My suspicion is that he did only do it with a woman twice - in any event, the mannish Penelope much preferred mucking out her ponies.

What Lady Elizabeth's experience was we will never know: she refused to co-operate with this biography. But she was Princess Margaret's lady-in-waiting, and I imagine that Betjeman required her to perform similar duties for him - making her a glorified nurse or governess to cut up his food, help him into his clothes, and ensure he took his medicines. "He did what madam said he would do," recalls a witness. Nothing about the liaison sounds erotic. Penelope, meantime, went off with her loneliness to the Himalayas to look at temples.

Hillier is less interested in these psychodramas than in Betjeman the public figure. In this volume, though he is knighted and made Poet Laureate in 1972, it is clear that any poetical gift has quite vanished ("Blackbirds in City churchyards hail the dawn, /Charles and Diana, on your wedding morn" - for goodness' sake!). Betjeman's energies went instead into his conservation work, and we must be eternally grateful to him for battling so vigilantly against "institutionalised vandalism and the triumph of stupidity and greed over beauty".

City developers and their characteristic "duplicity and philistinism" flattened the domed court and galleried rotunda of the Coal Exchange, Lower Thames Street. But it is generally thanks to Betjeman that Regency and Victorian terraces, mansions, theatres, stations, branch lines, viaducts and piers still survive. Whenever a village was threatened with mutilation by a road-widening scheme, Betjeman would come to the rescue and head the campaign.

Like Philip Larkin and Alan Bennett, Betjeman adored the pathos of individuality and oddity. His best poems are full of revealing observations: catching the country bus in the cold rain; love affairs in tea shops; harvest festivals; lavender sachets in the linen cupboard. He brought this quality of sadness and nostalgia to his television documentaries.

Metroland, his voyage through Neasden, Wembley and Chorleywood, is a classic. There were dozens of such programmes, on churches, market towns, off-season hotels. There was also a series on Australia - a celebration of bird-eating spiders, pink parrots and cast-iron verandas.

He became, in old age, a familiar sight, wearing his battered hat, a waistcoat that had belonged to Henry James and a semi-transparent grey plastic mac.

He enjoyed drinking champagne from a pewter mug. "It looked like merriment, generosity, enjoyment, celebration - but the truth was, he was pissed," vouchsafes Barry Humphries, with whom Betjeman would discuss Oscar Wilde. He was indeed drinking a lot and taking antidepressants; Parkinson's disease exacerbated his shuffling gait and a stroke put him in hospital for months. "I think I'd rather be alive in hell than extinct," he claimed.

He was a wondrously original man, successful and famous, yet crippled with doubts. "Love," he said, "is a searing experience, more often painful than a pleasure." Might not this be a key to his personality? The sado-masochism; the deep fears of loss and rejection; the selfishness and mistrust? Like a soot-stained building that you prize, love can vanish.

Hillier does not go in for interpretation. The curator scrupulously won't get in front of his exhibits. We have the full publication history of Summoned By Bells, but no analysis of how the autobiography sees in the past buried memories of insecurity and harshness. But Hillier's labours on behalf of Betjeman are a mighty enterprise, equal in stature to Leon Edel's biography of Henry James.

Roger Lewis's 'Anthony Burgess' is published by Faber & Faber

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