The Sage of the Suburbs ; Betjeman by A N Wilson HUTCHINSON Pounds 20 (384Pp) Pounds 18 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Taylor, D J, The Independent (London, England)
In the wake of Bevis Hillier's three volumes, a bumper selection of letters, a three-part TV extravaganza and a centenary celebration fit to overwhelm the frequencies of Radios 3 and 4, the casual onlooker might be forgiven for assuming that there is not much more to be said about Sir John Betjeman. Gratify-ingly, AN Wilson's portrait comes at Betjeman's poetry - in the end, the only thing that makes poets interesting - from all kinds of unexpected angles, while exposing the emotional life that coursed beneath it with an altogether painful clarity. Fellow-feeling lurks at every corner, and experienced Wilson-fanciers will find a particular resonance in the line about his subject discovering "the perhaps dangerous ease with which a clever person can make money out of journalism".
From its earliest days, in gilded post-Waugh era Oxford, Betjeman's career rested on a talent for relentless self- projection. One of the strengths of Betjeman is Wilson's feel for the way in which this bandwagon gathered pace in the 1930s. Sent down from Oxford ("You'd have only got a Third," his tutor CS Lewis briskly informed him), kept afloat by prep-school mastering and finally fixed up with a job at the Architectural Review, Betjeman had the good fortune to be sustained by a collection of moneyed young exquisites, led by Bryan Guinness and his wife Diana (later Mosley), who made it their business to talk up his prospects to likely-looking sponsors.
This pageant of high-powered wire-pulling was adroitly stage- managed by Betjeman himself. Despite, or perhaps because of, his social disadvantages - his father was an upwardly mobile cabinet- maker - and personal shortcomings symbolised by a preference for mackintoshes and unbrushed teeth, he was a notably sharp operator. A middle-class boy on the make - the obvious comparison is with Evelyn Waugh - he mixed genuine promise with the role of court jester to a upper-class audience. Such trajectories nearly always acquire a dense mythological gloss' another of Wilson's achievements is to debunk some of the legends that attached themselves to the much- loved Poet Laureate after his death.
Thus Ernie Betjeman, characterised by his son's crony Alan Pryce- Jones as a "tyrant", emerges as a far from domineering figure, first pictured reading to the infant John from Goldsmith's Deserted Village. For Lewis, to whom the undergraduate Betjeman is supposed to have lamented: "I can't decide whether to be a High Church clergyman with a short lacy surplice or a very Low Church clergyman with long grey moustaches", to have put up with him for more than a couple of tutorials was clearly an act of startling charity. …