- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

BETJEMAN: A LIFE

By A.N. Wilson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27,

368 pages, illus.

COLLECTED POEMS

By John Betjeman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25,

528 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

A.N. Wilson had better believe in the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, for this latest biography of his comes across the Atlantic trailing clouds of — well, certainly not glory. Hardly had this sparkling biography appeared than a mischievous rival biographer of John Betjeman shone a spotlight on a fake letter which he had sent Mr. Wilson and which the hapless dupe had incorporated in his book, despite its coming from a false address and being signed Eve de Harben (an anagram for ever been had).

Ostensibly a love letter from Betjeman to the novelist Honor Tracy, it contained the marvelously Betjemanesque sign-off “tinkerty-tonk,” guaranteed to give it an air of authenticity. As if all this wasn’t sufficiently embarrassing for Mr. Wilson, the first letters of its sentences spelled out a vicious and vulgar slur on him (culminating in a dirty word the British like to apply to not-nice people).

Vowing to remove this fake from future editions, Mr. Wilson has included an erratum in this one, telling the story and, with admirable aplomb, saying that the acrostic must have been intended to spell out “A.N. Wilson is a saint!”

Well, whether or not Mr. Wilson is a saint or the other word applied to him by Bevis Hillier, he is an excellent biographer and this is one of his best, far superior to his rival’s multi-volume effort. Not only is it an excellent analysis of the man and his work, but it is also a magnificent portrait of his time, from his halcyon, Bridesheadesque student days at Oxford (Waugh was a near contemporary there), through the dark days of World War II and an austere postwar Britain far removed from the suburban gentilities celebrated in so much of his verse.

Betjeman was a winsome and sweet-natured lecher, his endless crushes and flirtations representing the triumph of a highly romantic nature over some of the worst personal hygiene — his slimy green teeth were a byword even in the parlous world carved out by British dentistry. Mr. Wilson handles all this with tact and good taste, but also with astringent acuity.

These are qualities he also brings to his handling of Betjeman’s religious nature and his complicated relationship with wife, Penelope, and longtime mistress, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, the latter described by one spiteful observer as little more than an upper-class nanny. (Mr. Wilson cannot help observing that this was the ultimate desideratum for the poet.)

Almost a model shortish biography in its plethora of intelligent and sensitive judgment, “John Betjeman: A Life” is an excellent introduction for American readers likely to be unacquainted with him and his poetry.

It is hard for those outside of Britain to grasp the enormous popularity Betjeman enjoyed on his native ground. Yes, he was poet laureate, but they come and go and none of his fellow laureates in the 20th century enjoyed the truly iconic status he enjoyed.

True, not all of this came from his poetry, beloved though much of that was. There was also his advocacy of preserving England’s heritage of Victorian architecture, including some of the monstrously grand railway terminals which grace London. His frequent appearances on television passionately arguing for such conservation revealed a rumpled, unkempt figure who became widely thought of as England’s teddy bear.

Such was the popularity of this figure and also his poetry, which was nothing if not accessible and thus wildly popular everywhere but in the academy, that the unrelenting volume of his fan mail until the end of a very long life was a true burden to him.

The publishers of this biography have helpfully re-issued John Betjeman’s ” Collected Poems” in a paperback edition, enabling lovers of this verse to glory in it and those unacquainted with its glories to discover them. What a lot of good light verse there is in its 500 pages. And more serious stuff too, such as “Private School:

“So all the previous night I spewed with fear. / I could not box: I greatly dreaded pain. / A recollection of the winding punch / Jack Drayton once delivered, blows and boots / Upon the bum at Highgate Junior School …

“Silent in the dorm / I cleaned my teeth and clambered into bed. / Thin seemed pyjamas and inadequate / The regulation blankets once so warm.”

Or “Marlborough,” which celebrates the famous elite boarding school of that name where the poet was an unhappy, unathletic teenager:

“The dread of beatings! Dread of being late! / And greatest dread of all, the dread of games!”

Perhaps Betjeman’s most famous poem, his quintessential work, is “A Subaltern’s Love-Song,” told in the voice of a young soldier at the Royal Military College in love with the comely young daughter of an army doctor. It was Betjeman’s particular genius to use the real name of this girl he glimpsed (but apparently no more) and to immortalize it in the poem’s repeated recapitulation of it:

“Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, / How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won. / The warm-handled racket is back in its press, / But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.”

And so on until the climactic finale:

“And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said, / And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead. / We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.”

The British seem to have fallen in love with this charming poem in as head over heels a fashion as Betjeman and his eponymous subaltern did with the lovely Joan.

But despite the undeniable and indelible lightness of his poetic pen, Betjeman lived in modern times with all their angst and his religiousness was sufficiently at odds with his lecherousness to produce a lot of guilt. But never enough to quench either the desire or the fulfillment of it. Can there be a better snapshot of an adulterous couple than this six-line poem entitled “In a Bath Teashop?”

“‘Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another? / Let us hold hands and look.’ / She, such a very ordinary woman; / He, such a thumping crook; / But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels / In the teashop’s ingle-nook.”

Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” as interpreted by T.S. Eliot is what this seems to be. We learn from this biography that Eliot taught the young Betjeman at Highgate Junior School in London: Who knew so much had rubbed off?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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