The Poet of the Provinces: John Betjeman Is Often Thought of as a Bit of a Fogey, but His Work Was Piercingly Prescient. Andrew Martin Looks Back at the Man Who Helped Inspire Him as a Writer

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It was in the sixth form of Nunthorpe Grammar School, York, that I first became properly aware of John Betjeman, whose centenary is being celebrated. Our English teacher, Mr "Charlie" George, was talking us through The Go-Between by L P Hartley. At the start of the novel, young Leo is tormented at school by two lads called Jenkins and Strode. "Very good names for bullies," noted Charlie George, who then broke off to mention that, in his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman mentions being tormented by an even more aggressive-sounding pair: Robson and Ibbotson. "Betjeman's great, lads," said Charlie, by way of aside. "Don't let the snobs tell you different."

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I read the passage in which the pair ambush the young Betjeman, and was very uncomfortably reminded of my own days of being bullied. Another, closely adjacent, passage was equally striking. The boy Betjeman is invited by a little girl called Julia to a smart party. He is very proud of being the last to leave, but as he departs he overhears the hostess's mother inquire: "I wonder where Julia found that strange, rather common little boy?" As a class-conscious physical coward, I was already beginning to identify with the man.

I then bought a record called Banana Blush, on which he read some of his poems over music. I loved it, but kept it to the rear of my record stack (Shaved Fish by John Lennon was always proudly displayed at the fore), fearing that Betjeman was somehow not "cool". The other day, 30 years too late, I read that this record has a street-credible champion in Morrissey, who apparently plays the most maudlin track from it, "A Child Ill", before his concerts. This doesn't surprise me. In one of Morrissey's best songs, "Every Day is Like Sunday", about a boring seaside town, the salivating plea "Come, come, come--nuclear bomb" echoes Betjeman's "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough ..."

Together with Philip Larkin, Morrissey goes on to my list of people willing to forgive the fact that Betjeman's poetry was comprehensible, and to perceive its strangeness and frequently morbid power. One of the reasons I began to write a series of novels set on the railways is his line from "Parliament Hill Fields": "Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go." (I don't quite know why ... something to do with the autonomy of rail-borne vehicles.) And when Betjeman wrote about death, I was always very nastily checked: "Do you know that the stucco is peeling?/Do you know that the heart will stop?"

Yes, he was the nation's teddy bear, pottering and--as the Parkinson's took hold--increasingly tottering in and out of interesting-looking churches and railway stations, but his persona was a complicated, multilayered bluff. Watch him on television (a DVD of his documentary Metroland is available). Here is a complicated character--profoundly ironic, all strange, flirtatious sidelong glances and languorous comic timing. As a television audience, we are no longer intelligent enough for the mutability of a Betjeman.

I remember seeing him interviewed towards the end of his life. He sat on a clifftop in a wheelchair. "What are your regrets?" he was asked. "I haven't had enough sex," he replied, with great trenchancy. Another of his regrets was not being "taken seriously by the TLS", except that this was a mock-regret, which has become a comfort to me, the author of five novels, only two of which have been noticed on its pages (and one of those was in the "In Brief" section). …