There was a dark side to John Betjeman, says Anthony Symondson SJ Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter by Bevis Hillier, John Murray £25 The third, and final, volume of Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman opens in the aftermath of the huge success of Collected Poems in 1958 and the even greater achievement of Summoned by Bells, Betjeman’s blank verse autobiography, in 1960. The printing of 75,000 sold out and by the end of the year “John was to many Britons not just one of the most famous Englishmen, but one of the best-known people in the world”. Cummings, of the Daily Express, included him in a cartoon with Prince Philip and President Kennedy. Betjeman was 54, and on the point of gaining even greater renown as a television broadcaster, making programmes about churches and English architecture; few opened people’s eyes with greater skill.
None of John Betjeman’s contemporaries would have predicted the fame he achieved in later life, least of all that he would become Poet Laureate. W H Auden and Louis MacNeice had claimed him in 1937 in Letters from Iceland as “the most remarkable man of his time in any position”. They recognised him as an original voice, but Betjeman’s work was then known only to a small group of contemporaries and there is something of the private joke in their acknowledgement.
Betjeman regarded himself as, and was, an outsider, not simply as a poet but socially in his chosen world. His father spoke with a cockney accent and Betjeman admitted that he had worked hard on his own voice. At Oxford he achieved social success as a court jester, he married well, and went on to become a national figure.
Betjeman was a founder of the Victorian Society and took a prominent part in the early campaigns to save the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange, in the City of London. Both failed, but thereafter no offensive to rescue Victorian architecture was complete without Betjeman’s support and he achieved many victories. In the public mind both were inseparably associated, and few comments annoyed him more than the exclamation: “I saw a perfectly hideous building the other day, you would have loved it.” In 1968 Betjeman was knighted and four years later he was named Poet Laureate. The Times had campaigned for the appointment not simply because of his popularity but with the expectation that “Sir John is more likely to produce verse worthy of an occasion than is anyone else”. He failed miserably in a post in which he was expected to excel, partly because he found writing poetry to order difficult, partly because of failing health, partly because he had, in his wife’s words, “gone off”. Paul Johnson regarded him as the best of the 20th-century laureates but lamented that he had “seemed to lose all his talent once the laurel was nailed to his brow”.
Behind the public success lay vulnerability, self-pity and decline. Betjeman’s marriage to Penelope Chetwode had received a 1ethal blow when she became a Catholic. They were united at the altar as nowhere else and he was dislocated by the spiritual severance. They did not divorce, but Lady Elizabeth Cavendish replaced her and took charge of his life. Neither woman liked the other, but Betjeman loved both.
Betjeman had transformed himself from Bright Young Thing and enfant terrible into Grand Old Man. The onset of Parkinson’s Disease when he was 65 reduced him to an invalid in his final years but did not stop him from maintaining his public profile. Metroland and A Passion for Churches, both made by Edward Mirzoeff, secured television triumphs in the Seventies, followed by the success of Banana Blush, the recording of his verse accompanied by Jim Parker’s music, and their sequels. Jonathan Stedali returned to make the painful Time with Betjeman shortly before he died. As his talents ran out the media made him their own and satisfied an inexhaustible public appetite. “I find myself not myself but a public figure and quite inhuman,” he complained.
Betjeman created his own myth through his writings and television success. It was closer to the reality than most, and meeting him left you with a lighter heart and step. He was not a pederast, but, with W H Auden and Barry Humphreys, took a sophisticated interest in the “uranian” verse of the Rev E E Bradford because it is accidentally funny and occasionally touching. Betjeman’s irrational hatreds, occasional brutal rudeness, and petulance will also take some by surprise.
Hillier presents a selective panorama of the late twentieth century and Betjeman’s place in it, and attempts a critical evaluation in a considered epilogue. A few mistakes creep in: Basil Carver was vicar of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, not Carter; Comper designed the furniture of Pusey House chapel, not Travers. He leaves uncorrected the diaries of Dr Gregory Scott; John Davidson is confused with Bradford in a late reading of his verse; he is wrong about John Byrne’s discovery of Waugh letters in Betjeman’s books – there were none; he muddles Diana Mitford with her sister, Nancy.
Hillier devotes 746 pages to these years; no detail is spared. Self-doubt or not, Betjeman had an extraordinary life that enhanced the lives of many and changed our way of seeing; but the counterproductive length of this biography has, unforgivably, turned him into a bore.