THE GUILLOTINE

Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 48: JOHN BETJEMAN
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The Independent Culture
In the words of the Dean of Westminster, spoken at the poet's memorial service in 1984, John Betjeman's death "has eclipsed the gaiety of nations". That sentiment would still be widely shared, even if the word "nations" was pardonable hyperbole: Betjeman's verse is, for reasons evident to anyone conversant with its characteristic themes and preoccupations, almost wholly unknown abroad. In Britain, however, he was the most beloved of poets, accessible without ever being vulgar, parochial (in the best sense - and, yes, there is a best sense) without ever being twee. Before we all proceed to the next paragraph, let me make it clear that I personally am as partial to his work as that exemplar of bluff opinionaion, the next man.

Yet there can be no question that he was what the French call a petit- maitre. In some other creative field - fiction, for example, or drama or film - that fact wouldn't necessarily bar him from posthumous survival. Posterity, though, has always demanded of its supplicant versifiers the highest possible standards. There has never existed, in short, a minor poet whose name has rung down the ages, and it's impossible to believe that Betjeman will prove the first exception to that rigorous rule.

What made his books so pleasurably idiosyncratic was equally what made them so minor. His proselytising interest in long-derided Victorian architecture, his fascination with humdrum and hence easily ignored parish churches, his celebration of all the poignantly dainty kitsch of Home Counties suburbia - these were gentle passions to which thousands of 20th-century readers could respond but which are surely destined to have less and less resonance as the 21st unfolds. As for the quality of the poems themselves, though they are not as chintzy as they may initially appear to the casual eye - "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" is, after all, a subversive and potentially offensive line - they're hardly destined to carry all before them. Betjeman was an arch-traditionalist in an era of arch-modernism, a stance calculated to render him sympathetic in this era of postmodernism (to a nation as culturally conservative as ours the notion of "post-traditionalism" would be inconceivable) but unlikely to cut any ice with posterity.

So, much as it pains me to order the execution: "Come, friendly blade ..."

GILBERT ADAIR

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