Thursday, 23 May 2019

Betjeman The Bonus of Laughter - Vol. 3 of Bevis Hillier's biography

Hillier's books have been my bedside and travel companions since February; three months on, I have finished and feel greatly satisfied, yet sad that this literary journey has reached an end.

The first volume describes the childhood and youth of John Betjeman, his life at Oxford, his first jobs and the poetic influences that led to the publication of his first book of poetry. The second volume charts Betjeman's rise to prominence - as a journalist, broadcaster and poet. In the final volume, Betjeman reaps the rewards of his work; recognition, honours, the onset of old age, illness and death.

This book shows the arc of his career reaching a zenith and then falling back to earth as infirmity, and the demands that came with the role of Poet Laureate, dulled his edge. Entering the eighth and final decade of his life, we see a man confined to a wheelchair wrestling with the great existential question - is there a God?

Betjeman's poems were not taken seriously by the literary establishment in his time. Heavyweight academic books about English poetry in the 20th century have been written that do not even mention him. He is often dismissed as a 'popular' poet; "the low-brow's middle-brow," "idly snobbish and trippingly traditional" "harmless writer of light verse" by those who could be bothered; others affected to ignore him. Typically his poems outsold theirs by twenty to one.

But ignore Betjeman you cannot. He gets to the bones of the human condition, love and death, the universally applicable subjects, with a simplicity of language learned from journalism that takes practice and sympathy for the reader. He is the pre-eminent poet of place; his descriptions of towns, villages, churches, landscapes, resonate with the reader to the extent of being able to share the qualia of being there.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Betjeman was his religious questioning. He wanted to believe in God - a high Anglican God - but was troubled with doubt throughout his life, doubts that intensified with age. He was born in when almost everyone believed; but by the time he died in 1984, few English people truly believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, or in a heavenly afterlife. His angst-ridden contemplation of the Eternal and Infinite gave his poems an edge that conscious and sensitive spirits can identify with.

For these two reasons I admire Betjeman's poetry so much.

"It's easy to be difficult," said Betjeman of T.S. Eliot's phrase "the desirability of poetry's being difficult." Being difficult in poetry was fashionable at the very same time that being difficult was fashionable in art and classical music, observes Hillier.

A significant part of the third volume deals with Betjeman's later career as a preservationist; he engaged wholeheartedly in the campaign to save the Euston arch, which failed to do so. The bitter lessons learnt were deployed in later, successful, campaigns to preserve iconic Victorian architecture - the best known of which was St Pancras station.

The book expounds on the massively important role of Jock Murray, his publisher, who almost existed so that Betjeman's poems could reach their public. 'Jock' (full name John Arnaud Robin Grey Murray) was the sixth generation of John Murrays to run the publishing company. The seventh sold it - today the John Murray imprint, once Queen Victoria's personal publisher, belongs to the French conglomerate, Lagardere.

I found the way the footnotes were presented rather tiresome; when reading the narrative, my focused attention is distracted by a superscript number referring me to the notes section at the back of the book, which in itself, in volume 3 alone, runs to 84 pages. Looking up the note requires abandoning my train of thought, flicking to the notes section, trying to find the chapter heading (only in the second volume is the reader aided in this by a guide at the top of the notes pages referring to the pagination of the main body of the book), and I know that when I finally get there, I have less than a 50/50 chance of learning something new and interesting rather than just finding it's yet another 'ibid'.

Sadness in parting with this book after three months is tempered by the knowledge that I can dip into my various collections of John Betjeman's works with a new understanding. Above all, I ended the book with the insight that this is a work of biography as it should be understood - would one want such a work about one's own life? In today's online world of social media, it may well be possible to extract such a fine granularity of detail about everyone's lives, and in future use clever algorithms to put together biographies in book form about us all.

This time two years ago:
Birds and their young, Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
"Distinguish joy from pleasure" - wise words

This time seven years ago:
A post about a book about a film about a journey to a room

This time nine years ago:
Mr Pheasant trumpets his presence

This time ten years ago:
Balancing on the Edge of Chaos

This time 11 years ago:
Zamienie and the encroaching tide of Development

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