Television viewers thought of John Betjeman as the most affable man alive, says Anthony Symondson SJ. But he was a good hater and could be horribly two-faced
John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love by Bevis Hillier John Murray, £25
0 n Boxing Day I watched two videos, The Last Betjemans and Betjeman Revisited. In 1962, after publishing his acclaimed autobiographical poem, Summoned by Bells, and Collected Poems, John Betjeman turned his attention to the medium of television. What he most wanted was "to make people look at things that are beautiful, particularly buildings". He made a series about the West Country, his favourite region of Britain, revisiting Marlborough, where he was at school, Bath (twice), Sidmouth, Weston-superMare, Clevedon, Swindon and North Lew, Devizes, Malrnesbury, Chippenham and Crewkerne. Finally he went to Bristol, where he interviewed the now forgotten music hall artist, Randolph Sutton.
I remember seeing some of these beautifully made films when they first went out and I was glad to be reminded of them after reading the 707 pages of the second volume of Bevis Hillier's biography. covering the years 1934-58. because they recaptured Betjeman's seductive magic at the height of his powers. It was relatively late success. He was 56 when (despite having made regular BBC wireless, and occasional television, broadcasts) he moved from being the private property of a discriminating, uppermiddle-class minority to becoming a household name.
He did not subsequently make anything better. They made a lasting impression on me at the time which reinforced the impact of First and Last Loves, a book that (with the Shell Guides) entirely changed my way of looking at architecture when I was at school. and turned him into one of my heroes.
The reality behind Betjeman's kindly public face was not so reassuring. He emerges as a complicated, tortured, opportunistic, snobbish. sycophantic, sometimes unattractive, figure who had the fatal gift of redeeming himself through charm, pathos. irresistible self-projection, and getting away with murder. His eccentric friend. George Kolkhorst, got his own back after years of teasing by describing how Betjeman would appear before the Recording Angel: "Fearful, unbelieving you,/Abominable liar too;/ sorcerer. murderer, all in one./Perched up there before the Throne:/Idolater, fornicator./Of my chosen saints foul hater;! Brimstone is too good and fire/For the likes of such a liar .. ." This was a lampoon, but ingeniously it represented part of the story which the engaging public figure belied and that so far has largely remained hidden.
Kolkhorst's invective will probably surprise Betjeman's admirers, who were disarmed by his winning and unthreatening public manner, his apparent affection for the human race, and the vagaries of the British character. Few brought them more vividly to life than him; yet he could be as great a hater as a lover. always had to have an enemy. and could be repellently two-faced.
Much of this was, 1 suspect, due to a lack of confidence and self-hatred. Betjeman was born into a solid trade background that he grew up to detest. From Oxford he sought the company of the amusing. gifted and well-born. And when he stormily married Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of the commanderin-chief of the Indian Army. Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, it was noticed how easily he and his wife gravitated to the landed, rich and influential.
As a poet he was ranked by his contemporaries with W H Auden as an original voice that investigated fresh territory and bewildered their elders. His genius, which saw virtue in the unconsidered, was recognised in 1937 by Auden and Louis MacNiece in Letters from Iceland. They regarded him as "the most remarkable man of his time in any position". Betjeman's chosen landscape was Metroland, Surrey. Leamington, the West, and rural Ireland, which he regarded with a seeing eye. His causes were the AngloIrish ascendancy. steam engines, churches and Victorian architecture, the unfashionable but meritorious. Betjeman was fuelled by a loathing of progress. the commonplace. philistinism, the motor car, and the ruthless depredations of property developers, encouraged by senior civil servants and town planners. His direst predictions of the future have long come true. After flirting with Modernism as a young man on the Architectural Review, few preservationist campaigns were considered complete without his patronage and he secured notable successes.
Hillier lays bare Betjeman's life, publicly and privately. For long periods it was a struggle. He moved from being a film critic to a book reviewer. During the war he made propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. held a diplomatic post in Ireland. where he was suspected of being a spy, and worked for the Admiralty.
After the war he moved briefly to the British Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust; he began to broadcast and added sparkle as literary editor of Lady
Rhondda's Time and Tide. His marriage effectively ended when his wife became a Catholic and he was cruelly bullied by Evelyn Waugh to follow the same path. They did not divorce, he remained a practising Anglican, and later shared his life with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. He liked his male friends to be entertaining and stylish homosexuals while continually falling in love with other women. His friends doted on him and overlooked his weaknesses.
There is nobody alive who knows more about Betjeman than Hillier: he has devoted 25 years, sometimes working against active discouragement. to completing this biography.
It is a tour de force, but now and then he creates the impression that he has lost control of his material, become a little bored by it. and been diverted into intriguing byways that prove wearing for the reader. If you know Betjeman's world, it is absorbing. If you don't, it might make you wish that he had been more selective.