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Jo'Burg Days: On John Betjeman

Barbara Durlacher pays a glowing tribute to the poet and writer John Betjeman.

Musing on the phrase for the club’s annual competition, I searched to find the faintly remembered words. Somewhere I recalled hearing a recording of John Betjeman reading one of his poems, part of which depicted the sounds of a tennis match.

Pling, ‘Love Thirty’
Plong, ‘Forty Love’

And so the action goes, back and forth across the net until, with an exclamation, the imaginary opponent gives up, and the match is over.

My search for this elusive phrase activated a deeper study of the man and resulted in orders to an overseas supplier for Betjeman works unavailable locally. Once the books arrived, it took some time to locate the lines I remembered.

Despite his large body of work, Betjeman is mostly forgotten in today’s world, although his poetry remains popular with those who revere an older, almost forgotten, British way of life. Then, with the last postal delivery, arrived John Betjeman’s England, edited by Stephen Games and decorated with a bold four-colour picture of a fishing village (Llandudno, perhaps?) on the cover.

He was a friend of many people in different walks of life, including the late Princess Margaret – he called her his “little friend” and his long-time lover, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, the sister of the Duke of Devonshire and sister-in-law of Deborah, one of the redoubtable Mitford girls.

Sir John Betjeman was a one-time Poet Laureate, a well known broadcaster and a television personality. The accolades given to him in later life were well deserved, as he spent his entire life in love with, and writing about, Britain and the various attributes which make this small island beloved by so many.
On flipping through the pages I caught a glimpse of that which I dimly remembered.

“…Oh! Would I were her racket press’d/with hard excitement to her breast/and swished into the sunlit air/arm-high above her tousled hair/and banged against the bounding ball/’Oh! Plung!’ my taughten’d strings would call/’Oh! Plung! My darling, break my strings/For you I will do brilliant things.’...”*

Entranced, I read on, and in doing so, realized what a strange mixture of talents this interesting man embodied. He was “a rare combination of an aesthete and a popular celebrity” one blurb states. If one reads his essays and talks, the impression is that his interests ranged from a love of Victorian architecture and churches, to and an ability to see the beauty in all things, particularly English scenery. His was deeply steeped in love of the British countryside and its heritage of ancient buildings, and his ability to entertain his audiences combined with his self-taught erudition and enthusiasm, informed them without the awkwardness that often passes for true knowledge.

Betjeman’s England provides a selection of his television scripts ranging from the late ‘50s to the mid ’70s. These cover an astonishing range of subjects, but most particularly they underscore his horror and dismay at the destruction of England’s historic buildings, churches and also, in many cases, its lovely old towns by the passion for modernism which flourished at the end of the Second World War. Rising young architects with new ideas and plenty of enthusiasm did enormous damage to Britain’s unrivalled heritage of wonderful buildings, unmindful of the past and the centuries of history they represent. Crusaders all, the post-war generation wanted to wipe the slate clean and build a new Britain.

Many of these structures were erected too fast, and it was little surprise that within a couple of decades they were mouldy, decaying and on the point of collapse. Intrusive modernistic horrors elbowed aside many a stately edifice built when the British Empire at its height, and alleys, churches and cathedrals that were old in Dickens’ day. Betjeman commemorates them all, and mourns those that have gone, while celebrating those that are left.

A second book on Betjeman by author Stephen Games covers his radio talks, and a quick scan of Betjeman’s subjects makes one to marvel at his ability to convey his ideas to his audience as well as his passion for preserving the past. His interests stretched across life’s panoply, from religion (he was a fervent Catholic with a strong belief) to a discussion of people long forgotten with the passing of the years. His talks and writings cover the beauty of the Cornish countryside and its quiet country lanes to the congestion and pollution of the Great West Road (or, as he called it, the Great Worst Road) out of London.

...“the more precious I find the places of tranquillity and permanence. This island isn’t big and it’s very overcrowded. Muddle like this makes me long for birdsong instead of traffic roar, flower smells instead of fumes.

‘In the end this road will take me to Cornwall: to north Cornwall, where I was brought up as a child, and to a part of it that has been kept in its natural state not by the government or by any private landlord but by the National Trust. Cornwall to be seen at walking pace, now there’s time to breathe and see and smell and hear. Spring is the best time in Cornwall, when the hedges and turf are like acres of wild rock garden, when sea pinks colour the cliffs for miles...”

Can’t you see exactly what was in his mind’s eye? Doesn’t it make you yearn to get out in to the English countryside and soak up the beauty of those rolling hills and dales or those rocky, wave-pounded shores? Remember spring in Buckinghamshire or the Cotswolds where a haze of bluebells shimmer under the beech trees; the Wiltshire downs at dawn, with the horses’ breath steaming in the dawn air as they exercise on the gallops; or the tawny hay-bundles in the fields drying in the late summer sun? His words recall the honey-coloured stones of the great English abbeys and churches; the crumbling casements of ancient castles settling into the dust, and remind one of the verdant, berry-laden hedgerows of early autumn crisping under an early lick of Jack Frost’s icy fingers. He brought all this to life with his mastery of words.

With the intrusion of “social media” and the loss of handwritten letters to friends and relatives, it is unlikely we will see another Betjeman, or experience the delight of reading something that, the moment you see it, describes better than ever before, the sights, sounds and smells of life in Britain.

*from the Olympic Girl by John Betjeman, first published in ‘A Few Late Chrysanthemums’ in 1954.


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