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Betjeman Paperback – 6 Sep 2007
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"Wilson's forte is the character and he brilliantly conveys Betjeman's odd mixture of introspection and sociability, gaiety and melancholia, exhibition and self-disgust ... Betjeman is a poet who badly needs saving from his soppier fans, and this Wilson has done" (Lynn Barber Daily Telegraph)
"Funny, poignant and unusually well written, Wilson's biography does the old boy proud" (Jeremy Lewis Mail on Sunday)
"An A-grade demonstration of the point of Betjeman, the vast constituencies to which he appealed and the area of English life that he made his own" (D.J. Taylor Independent)
"Terrific... [Wilson's] book zeroes in on Betjeman's struggles with his faith, which he places dead centre of the life and work, and on his family difficulties, and does so with extraordinary imaginative sympathy... Essential" (Spectator)
"A joy to read and re-read - the perfect match of author and subject" (Hugh Massingberd Spectator)
The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller
'A joy to read and re-read - the perfect match of author and subject' Hugh Massingberd, 'Books of the Year', Spectator
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A. N. Wilson shows evidence of painstaking research and clearly feels a deep affinity with his subject. On the whole the poetry receives short shrift, even given that it doesn't lend itself to detailed analysis in the way that say, Plath's does. Many might quarrel too with his list of Betjeman's best poems; there seem to me notable omissions, "Greenaway" for example. It is in many ways an extraordinary life and Wilson cleverly allows it to appear to speak for itself, without obtrusive comment. There are some wonderful anecdotes. I particularly like the one involving John Osborne and the church visit and light is thrown on so many notables from Auden to Waugh and Osbert Lancaster, Hugh Gaitskell to Anthony Blunt and Princess Margaret, along with a host of Oxford academics, politicians, broadcasters and those further on the edge of society + the omnipresent Archie. I approached the book with modest expectations but found myself utterly beguiled. Strongly recommended.
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.
His defenders enjoy the splendid prose, the sense of fun, the eye for the revealing detail and the outrageous generalisations.
Both sides have a point. Certainly, no historian should rely on any of his facts without independent confirmation. His unreliability has been exposed too often. But then again, surely there is a place for books whose primary purpose is to entertain rather than inform?
Considered as entertainments, Wilson's biographies are a runaway success. No doubt in an ideal world, one would want scholarly rigour and fun, but if I had to choose I'd probably go for fun. His books on C.S. Lewis and Iris Murdoch are also excellent.
Betjeman emerges in Wilson's portrait as distinctly less teddy bearish than the popular image. He and his wife appear to have treated their son Paul with real contempt, regularly referring to the boy as "It" in his presence. As Dave Pelzer has pointed out, this mode of address is generally not indicative of great parenting skills.
I listened to the audio recording of the Betjeman biography made for BBC Audiobooks by Bill Wallis. He reads the book well, although (I'm not the first to say this) he gives Betjeman's wife Penelope a weird rustic accent which cannot be remotely similar to what she actually sounded like.
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