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A required possession,
This review is from: Betjeman (Hardcover)
I feel this fine book works well in two differing respects; as an easily-read biography and as a companion to and a commentary upon Betjeman's earlier life as chronicled in "Summoned By Bells". A N Wilson's account is an intelligently, sympathetically and often wittily written addition to the Betjeman literature.
There is much "Betjemania" that the author might have included to produce an unwieldy tome but in my view Mr Wilson has edited this well; I have no quibble with the exclusion, for example, of the radio and television material. Betjeman was very "audio/visual" and without his voice or picture, the scripts lose much of their essential appeal. It is sometimes difficult to gauge how serious JB was with much of his self-deprecation but he did describe himself as "poet and hack", suggesting that he recognised that the quality of his prose was rather less than that of his verse. If nothing else, this exclusion has spared us Betjeman's irritatingly interminable references to "ilex trees" to be found in every front garden, churchyard and municipal park visited in his radio travels. This is not to suggest that his prose undertakings were without merit - quite the contrary, although they were of varying quality - but some culling of his considerable output is necessary to condense things to this convenient degree. For those seeking the minutiae, there is available another biography of different authorship.
Mr Wilson has drawn a character tortured by seemingly irreconcilable contradictions and doubts - manifested most obviously in his religious allegiances ranging from Baptist to, I suspect, crypto-Papist; the "love triangle" as well as the other aspects of this multi-faceted but in some respects, weak character. These are well covered to provide a comprehensive and eminently readable book about a man who, regardless of the social changes wrought by two world wars and the cultural ravages of the 'sixties, remained steadfastly Edwardian - how different from his contemporary, Roy Campbell. Betjeman's innate melancholia would have become unbounded had he foreseen the steep decline of the Church of England in public life, further removing the present England from the country into which he was born and for which he had such a profound affection. Thankfully, his witness to this and other more recent damage to the social fabric has been spared.
Surely, this really excellent volume devoted to probably the best English poet born in the 20th century - certainly the most popular although perhaps not the best English poet writing in that century - has to be an essential inclusion in any Betjeman collection. However, I should have liked to have learned a little more of his later years and how he came to view the death which haunted him in life.
The publisher is to be commended - the production is first class and the Arts and Crafts end-papers a nice touch; one surely to appeal to JB's shade.