Mole Valley Poets, 29th April 2013
Tony Earnshaw: John Betjeman 1906 -1984

"The apparently effortless manner in which John Betjeman writes should deceive no one as to the intense care which goes into his craftsmanship. Amnd its grest metrical skill" – Earl of Birkenhead, from introduction to Collected Poems

We're all familiar with Betjeman. Some of his poems are very familiar – Slough, A Subaltern's love song, In Westminster Abbey, Myfanwy etc. I'll try to avoid poems in this category but may not be entirely successful. I'm also going to avoid too much detail on his life since he's as familiar as a favourite uncle. Suffice it to say he chronicled both an England that was disappearing and that which was taking it's place. He had his particular interests which recur in the work – architecture, places, girls, sex, the countryside, mortality, faith and religion – but his work is mainly characterized by a deceptive simplicity (for which he was often misunderstood and criticized), an innate sensitivity, and a perceptive and incisive mind.

Jon Wilde writing in The Guardian, 15th February 2013 -

'Back in April 1974, I picked up my brother's copy of New Musical Express (as it was then known) for my weekly dose of rock'n'roll polemic and happened across an interview with Sir John Betjeman. Betjeman didn't look much like a rock star but he kept his larder stocked with scotch, was generous with it, and interviewer Andrew Tyler admitted he was as drunk as a boiled owl by the time he staggered out of Betjeman's house.

I was vaguely aware of Betjeman before he starred in the NME's pages. He was one of the few poets stocked in my local bookshop and I'd seen him a few times on television: a large, untidy, avuncular man who always looked as though he'd had at least a couple of sherries. Mostly he talked about leaky country houses and the gothic majesty of railway station architecture, the "lovely bits of old England" that were, according to Sir John, under grave threat from the uncaring future.

According to the NME, Betjeman was about to release his first LP at the grand old age of 67. ... . I ordered it, played it and instantly fell in love with it.

The idea for Banana Blush came from producer Hugh Murphy, who ... paired up Betjeman with composer Jim Parker. Initially, the poet laureate was sceptical about the project, protesting that he possessed the kind of singing voice that could bring up bodies from the murky depths of the Thames. "Just imagine you're Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady," he was told.

Betjeman was never the most reliable critic when it came to his own work. Upon completion, he dismissed Banana Blush as a "vulgar pop song record, a serious lapse in taste".

It was neither. I first heard it shortly before my 13th birthday and it sounded strange but exquisite to my ears. Frankly, I'd never heard anything like it in my life.

It opens with Indoor Games Near Newbury, the clippity-clop of frisky tea-room jazz as the backdrop to Betjeman's flashback, here concerning young, unconsummated love played out in a dark cupboard during a kids' Christmas party. A love "that lay too deep for kissing". I was hooked. To a temperate music hall knees-up The Flight from Bootle tells of a Liverpool lady mislaying her virtue in a seedy Piccadilly Circus hotel. A euphoric blast of brass introduces A Shropshire Lad, the story of Captain Matthew Webb, ...

... At 13, I wept hot tears as I listened to Child Ill, moaning brass providing the accompaniment to Betjeman's memory of his father on his deathbed. Then came On the Portrait of a Deaf Man, in which Betjeman remembers his father while staring at his grave; memories of silent walks in country lanes mingling with thoughts of the maggots now collecting in his dad's eyes. This was the saddest thing I'd ever heard.

During the late 70s, I became aware that admitting to a love for Betjeman's work invited suspicion and even open ridicule. Betjeman was name-checked, alongside Leo Sayer or the National Front on a Seditionaries T-shirt, as an example of something it was cool to hate. Bukowski and Ginsberg were considered the cool poets of the time, but they said nothing to me about my life. The world Betjeman eulogised in his poems could not have been further from my own either, but it was his world that I longed to inhabit. It was his poetry that tugged at my heart, made me laugh and feel less alone.

In music circles, Betjeman has his disciples. Morrissey referenced Betjeman's 1937 poem Slough on Everyday Is Like Sunday ... . Nick Cave, Suggs and British Sea Power have all cited Betjeman as an inspiration, whereas dance producer Andrew Weatherall has covered his music. Jarvis Cocker is known to play selections from Banana Blush on his BBC 6 Music show.

Betjeman never expected his work to endure. As early as 1961 he confidently remarked: "I will be completely forgotten in five years from now." He was wrong, very wrong. Most publishers would rather welcome a burglar on to their premises than a poet, yet Betjeman's Collected Poems have sold in excess of 2m in the UK alone, making him a phenomenon in modern English literature. Long before his death he became something of a national teddy bear.

And yet I rarely encounter fellow Betjeman enthusiasts. Whenever his name comes up these days, I'm told that he has not dated well. Too parochial by half. A little too twee and sentimental for comfort. His narrow, pastoral view of national identity ("oil-lit churches, village inns, arguments about cow parsley on the altar, the noise of mowing machines on Saturday afternoons, leaning on gates") too redolent of the insular Little Englander inwardly raging at the spread of suburbia and evil traffic jams.

Then I return to Banana Blush and I hear an altogether different Betjeman. A poet of great emotional power and resonance who, while documenting a vanishing England, always had one eye on eternity.'

We'll come back to 'Blush' later. Meantime. Two tracks from Late Flowering Love – which was a film with Betjeman doing voice over and actors including Susannah York, Beryl Reed, John Alderton and Eric Morecambe playing the parts. Jenny Agutter was Joan Hunter Dunn. The soundtrack is available as a CD.

Tracks: from Late Flowering Love (1981)

The poultry farm is a reminder that he isn't the poet of the suburbs he is sometimes accused of being. He is. However, very much a poet of place – and his knowledge of and sympathy for the places of these islands, especially English places is wide and varied. His 'Collected Poems' has an index by place which runs to three pages and he writes of these places with love. He also expresses a sense, not so much of nostalgia as of poignancy of passing time, a sensitivity to our finer moments, a recognition of his own weaknesses and, from time to time, a sense of the ridiculous, not to mention the anger that underlies some of the poems (Come friendly bombs is the obvious example but there are many more)

Beaumaris... In a Bath Tea shop... The licorice fields at Pontefract... Agricultural caress

Betjeman was famously focused on architecture and church buildings and I have consciously left that body of work aside in favour of some of his other, for me more interesting quirks which include a focus on death, a fear of mortality. There are a number of poems in which a type he doesn't like dies (Meditation on the A30 for example, and Mortality) and a number in which he dreads his own death or pays tribute to a deceased friend.

Mortality... The Commander... Goodbye

But I'd like to finish with his 'lapse of taste' – from Banana Blush