Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Betjeman's Way

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Betjeman's Way

Article excerpt

Betjeman's Way

THICK AND FAST COME THE BIOGRAPHIES OF ENGLISH WRITERS from the century past: Graham Greene, Isherwood, Spender, Anthony Powell, V. S. Pritchett, among the most recent. Bevis Hillier published the first of his three-volume life of John Betjeman in 1988,' taking the poet up through childhood conflicts with his father, schooling at Marlborough and Oxford (which he left without a degree), and marriage to Penelope Chetwode in 1933 at the age of twenty-seven and in the face of her disapproving parents. Although Young Betjeman ran to a (relatively) modest 477 pages, Mr. Hillier warned that there was a lot more to come by quoting an earlier biographer of Betjeman who announced that he was "not an admirer of the vacuum-cleaner school of biography" whose aim was to heap up fact, anecdote and whatever else into an enormous pile. Hillier demurred, noting that he was not only a biographer but a "source" who had direct access to many of the people appearing in his chronicle, "advantages which no future biographer of Betjeman can have: friendship and long talks with him and his wife Penelope, and interviews with many of his friends and associates."

These words recur in the preface to the second volume2 and now once more in the concluding one.3 Both books run to over 700 pages, bringing the grand total to just short of 2000. Since Betjeman authorized Hillier way back in 1976 to be his Boswell, this means that nearly thirty years of immersion in the great man's doings have gone into the enterprise. (Bevis Hillier meanwhile has published books on plastics, porcelain, and art deco.) It is surely natural to wonder whether the agreeable and gifted Betjeman needs quite such a "grand canvas"Hillier's phrase-as these volumes make up; evidently American publishers don't think so, since none of the books have appeared here. Is Betjeman too quintessentially an English phenomenon to bear transmission across the water?

Hillier's application of the vacuum cleaner was evident in Young Betjeman when, discussing Betjeman's homosexual inclinations while at Oxford, he notes that report of a bedding between Auden and his subject is "probably" true. (Presumably they paid the "scout" five pounds to keep quiet, Auden later remarking that it wasn't worth the money.) In the midst of reminding us that single-sex love was common in English all-boy schools, Hillier provides further evidence of Betjeman's proclivities:

John Bowle said that at Oxford John frequently slept with an Old Marlburian Balliol undergraduate of John's year, David Dent (who took a first in Jurisprudence, married in 1930 and died in 1933). Lionel Perry remembered that John "had a crush" on Hugh Gaitskell. "He would say to him, 'Hugh, may I stroke your bottom.' And Hugh would say, Oh, I suppose so, if you must'."

Good fun no doubt, and in case you never heard of David Dent (as you must have done of Hugh Gaitskell), his "first in Jurisprudence" is dutifully recorded along with his brief marital career (was his early death a consequence of missing his old Marlburian friend?). There is enough similar trivia to make us wonder about its worth; this reader trawled the 2000 pages with some delight, but also with impatience, at times annoyance. Why am I being told all this? Would it all come elear if I'd been educated at Marlborough and Oxford?

In the present volume, Hillier dates 1961 as the year Betjeman began to transform himself "from Bright Young Thing and enfant terrible, into Grand Old Man." With the publication of his Collected Poems in 1958, which sold astonishing numbers of copies (Tennyson and A Shropshire Lad were comparable sellers), and his verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960), a popular if not exactly a critical success, Betjeman-who also began to appear frequently on television-became a kind of household word. For those who did not admire his work, he was a portent of English philistinism and complacency. John Wain, who compared the blank verse of Summoned by Bells to writing jingles on Christmas cards, found the fact that to many people Betjeman was the only attractive contemporary poet, to be "merely one more sign that the mass middle-brow public distrusts and fears poetry. …

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