Friday, 3 May 2019

John Betjeman New Fame, New Love - Vol. 2 of Bevis Hillier's biography

A massively impressive work of in-depth research, based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of letters, newspaper pieces and other written sources, Bevis Hillier's biography of (to my mind) Britain's greatest 20th century poet runs to three volumes, well over 1,600 pages plus copious pages of notes and thorough index of people and places.

It is a comprehensive story of a life spent in the 20th century, but a life spent longing for the past, in particular for Victorian England, of Gothic Revival and steam railways. The second volume covers the years 1933 to 1958, during which time Betjeman had become firmly established, literally a household name, known to millions through his radio and then television appearances, newspaper and magazine articles in titles spanning the political spectrum, and through his well-received books of poetry. His poetry was ever accessible, it rhymed, it scanned, it made sense, but above all it captured the spirit of an age, and the spirit of place. In sharp contrast with the Modernist movement, Betjeman traded on the familiar in form and in content, and mourning that which was lost to the passage of time.

The second volume spans the time from his marriage and first published success in the early 1930s to his place as an established poet in the late 1950s, by which time he was over 50 years old.

During the period covered in the second part of the biography, Betjeman made a living from journalism, writing and editing for the Architectural Review, film critic for the Evening Standard, writing columns for the Spectator, reviewing books for the Daily Herald and Daily Telegraph, as well as appearing on the BBC. The gig economy of his days! He was sufficiently well-off to drop work that began to bore him.

But it was through the collections of poetry, published in book form by John Murray, that he really made his name and established his reputation. These six collections, including Continual DewNew Bats in Old Belfries and A Few Late Chrysanthemums, contained those first lines of the poems that have become so well-known in the English language - "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough"; "Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn/Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun"; "Gaily into Ruislip Gardens runs the red electric train". Slough, Aldershot, Ruislip - spirit of place - captured at a particular time, is what Betjeman did best.

His relationship with the modern was strained. Motorcars and bypasses, electricity pylons, chain stores with plate-glass fascias, he abhorred, especially when Gothic, Perpendicular, Early English or Norman churches had to make way for 'progress'. Yet during the 1930s he appeared on radio - and even, just before the war, on the BBC's fledgling television service. Motorists - a breed of folk he did not much care for - read the Shell Guides that he edited in large numbers and used their motorcars to drive out to visit the counties. But he used the motorcar as well as the train to visit his beloved country churches. In one of the many reviews of his poetry to be found in the book, one reviewer called Betjeman "an exile - not from another land, but from another time" - a theme that many others picked up on, his innate desire to return to a time before his birth.

The second world war was an interesting time for Betjeman; unfit for military service, he spent the war working for the Ministry of Information. He was seconded to the British Embassy in Dublin, where his job was wining and dining what would today be called 'influencers' - writers, journalists, editors - poets even, in an attempt to win them over to the British side (or a least stop them from sympathising with the German side).

An episode in Betjeman's life of which I knew nothing was his month-long spell as a visiting lecturer of poetry at the University of Cincinnati in March 1957. He gave a series of lectures, the second of which was entitled Local Poetry and Love of Place. But America he found empty, devoid of history its people soulless seekers of household gadgets, living in towns laid out for the motorcar.

Mr Hillier's book is so detailed; every aspect of Betjeman's life is covered - people who met him at critical junctures in his life were tracked down and interviewed; the result is a exemplar of how a biography - even, as is this one, an authorised biography - should read.

One quote from a John Betjeman book review that he wrote for the Daily Herald caught my eye: "A love of railways is a gift; like a love of music" (1947)

[The Bonus of Laughter, the final part of the biography, reviewed here.]

This time last year:
New roads and rails

This time two years ago:
The Gold Train shoot - lessons learned

This time five years ago:
Digbeth, Birmingham 5

This time six years ago:
Still months away from the opening of the S2/S79 

This time seven years ago: 
Looking at progress along the S79  

This time eight years ago:
Snow on 3 May

This time nine years ago:
Two Polands

This time ten years ago:
A delightful weekend in the country

This time 11 years ago:
The dismantling of the Rampa

This time 12 years ago:
Flag day

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