on 13 July 2012
Hillier writes: "My love for JB is very deep, I am sure that hundreds of his friends believe they are the chief confidant and the one friend with whom he is most at ease. I don't kid myself to this extent...."
"Young Betjeman", the first in Hillier's voluminous biography of John Betjeman; dated 1988 is well-made and stitched, as hard-bound books always were in those days. The first edition of this, the third, even mightier tome is dated 2004 but the hardback boards are deceptive. It is shoddily bound like a paperback. Big books deserve better. Perhaps, for publisher Murray, it all took too long. Now, in 2012, all three weighty and priceless tomes can be found hardbound, for just a penny each "as new"; and though ex-library; being unread, none the worse for that. Despatch will set Amazon booksellers back more than £5 in postage alone. For those servants, obliged by their overlords to charge no more than £2.80 for carriage; doing that part of mankind, where I find myself, a service by placing such heavyweights within our budgets; I offer up my benediction. Erasmus said "When I get a little money, I buy books. If there is any left over I buy food." Booksellers would eat better if they threw the heavy ones away.
With the pages glued up ("perfect-bound") the great pile of paper will soon fall apart. Such penny-pinching by Jock Murray was castigated by John Betjeman himself (recorded in this very book) soon after proof copies were delivered of his book "Church Poems". Murray had cut the text of the poems. Betjeman "went spare". "I think Murray's had cut the poems to avoid adding another four pages - to save money". When JB hauled his publisher over the coals; Murray explained "the proofs blew out of the window." Betjeman opined: "Really, I thought that was on the level of: "The dog ate my homework"". There's no excuse for such shoddy participation by a publisher, having been privileged with work that is the culmination of 25 years of devotion.
Beyond this trilogy, Bevis Hillier deserves immortality for being the first, in my own experience, to insist that TS Eliot was a fraud from the beginning. In the September 7th, 1996 edition of The Spectator, in the article "Borrowings of a Second-Rater", a damning review of "Inventions of The March Hare" (taking a break from his Betjeman biography no doubt) our Bevis affirmed that Eliot was a cheat. So, not because I cared much for Betjeman, but because I yearned for more vicious, devastating, well-crafted and angry diatribes; I bought the books: three pence for them all; incurring for me, to the booksellers of Amazon, a debt that cannot be repaid.
Hillier can really nurse his wrath. This book is entertaining not because of the jokes; surely not one joke is left unrecorded; but because feeble-minded contributors; publishers like Murray; Mirzoeff, the BBC producer; and even Wedgwood and are not spared the ire. Mirzoeff is carefully observed reducing the great man to apoplexy insisting that Betjeman performs to his script; Wedgwood: "known today for the manufacture of eighteenth-century pastiches."
Betjeman himself is shown no mercy alongside the devotion. It makes for a devastating book. Hillier adores any well-placed literate barb, especially against his subject. A review of his hero's art by John Wain described Betjeman's "complete lack of the skills of the true poet, his wooden technique, and incuriosity about literary art. Most of his poems are written either in hymn metres or in metres usually associated with light and comic verse. To manipulate them needs no more skill than is shown by the men who write the jingles on Christmas cards." I love it. "The Bookman" quoted these coruscating lines from The Observer and graced them with the heading: "Summoned by Jingle Bells". Those boyish literate fireworks Hillier can ignore no more than Betjeman could; or me: only today the Guardian offers the bonus of laughter: "Higgs Boson (pronounced "boatswain")". The artistry is breathtaking for those of the calling.
Hillier's Betjeman is a holy man, a percipient, with the godly qualities of a retarded boy and it never fails to amaze him and give him pleasure. Betjeman on teaching: "There's nothing more exciting than arousing enthusiasm for the things that you enjoy among young children" Or, in 1966: "He is the first man one has seen on television standing on a suburban bench and peering over a hedge to get a better view of the house beyond". Several times we are given verbatim the quality of broadcast that stamped Betjeman as a divine: Here he is adlib: "Hannah's bedroom... Her picture remains on the mantelpiece: which is it? The lower one? No, the top one."
Organising the greatest mass of material, The writing is beautifully crafted. Hillier sets us up by describing on page 407 Father McKenzie, in his parish magazine, retailing that "there is talk of a sponsored streak for church funds" pondering "By whom, we wonder?" for the detail in the poem on Page 420.
"The thought of just having a laugh, which was John's great thing in life, and not having to sit and work, was extremely tempting."
Talking of the eccentric Victorian parson Francis Kilvert, Betjeman might be describing himself, but he describes Hillier: "Everyday life did not seem to him ordinary and humdrum. Even what he called the humble and uneventful seemed to him curious and wonderful, therefore enjoyable... He wanted to give it lasting shape, to communicate it to others to entertain them. And this was the impulse of an artist."
Lees-Milne, Betjeman's friend is described as "an indifferent novelist and an inspired biographer. He was a professional; with an eye for significant detail, a sense of humour and a condiment dash of malice; a willingness to make a fool of oneself; a skin too few. This was art, but predominant was the compulsion to tell." For this we should be grateful to the Herculean and the protean Bevis Hillier.