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A new landmark in Betjeman studies
on 24 August 2006
This is the most enjoyable Betjeman book I've ever read - a book that's so good, it ought to be part of the English Literature curriculum. More than that: it ought to be read by everyone applying for British citizenship! In the course of 360 pages, Betjeman plunges you into what he regarded as the major issues of English identity - issues of aesthetics, civic duty, relations with authority, and individuality.
I suppose that all these ideas are contained in Betjeman's poetry, but there one tends to get distracted into noticing rhythm and metre and scansion. And Betjeman's poetic ideas are smaller. Here, although the writing is often lyrical, he addresses topics in a much more direct way. He cares that unvalued townscapes are being destroyed, that there might be collusion between commercial interests and public officials, that the recent past and the middle brow are ignored by modern taste-makers. Especially in his earlier essays, he writes about these issues with passion and yet with a lightness of touch that engages the reader completely. Read this, and you cannot fail to agree that Betjeman stands as one of the foremost spokesmen of the twentieth century.
"Trains and Buttered Toast" (with its beautful cover design by Duff Tollemache) also shows that Betjeman was fascinated by individuals and individuality. He is correspondingly cruel about English stereotypes - the lumpen proletariat who, in the late 1940s, listened to popular music on car radios or went on holiday in luxury coaches. His point, however, is to criticise people's failure to open their eyes, ask original questions and discover fresh beauties - something he sees as the public's sheep instinct. The antidote, he suggests, is to look for inspiration at people who didn't go where everyone else went and who weren't damaged by commercial pressures and mass production. He finds his role models in Victoriana, an age that he regards as rich in the culture of individuality. Many of his talks explore this in its most extreme manifestation - in eccentricity and in provincialism. In fact, among the most entertaining talks in the entire book are those that look at individuals who dedicated themselves to the church. Never before Betjeman was there a literary category devoted to "West of England Victorian hymn-writing vicars". Now there is!
Spread a little happiness. Buy this book - and buy it for your friends. They'll love you for it: it's a total joy.