In a televised interview a little before his death, poet laureate John Betjeman was asked if he had any regrets. After a thoughtful pause, the above was his delightful and honest answer.
Delightful and honest are two words that can easily apply to his poetry and prose, both of which was prolific. In this excellent, comprehensive anthology we have his poetry, including, I'm glad to say, his long autobiographical sequence Summoned By Bells, which appropriately closes this 500-page volume.
John Betjeman was no cosy or (perish the thought) 'feelgood' poet, but rather a melancholy, resourceful, witty and unique voice. He may remind one of Larkin or Stevie Smith, or Wordsworth or even Blake at times, but the effect is illusory. He was very much his own man, and this valuable collection shows all aspects of his literary - as well as his personal - character.
Try the following opening lines from the short poem Fetlar 1973:
Fetlar is waiting. At its little quay
Green seaweed stirs and ripples on the swell.
The lone sham castle looks across at Yell,
And from the mainland hilltops you can see
Over to westward, glimmering distantly,
The cliffs of Foula as the clouds dispel.
Apart from perhaps the third line, I wouldn't have known this was by Betjeman. But then, many a poem here is little or nothing like the image we have of the elderly, plum-voiced roamer of hills and vales, hair awry, voice wry with regret or high on hilarity.
There's his beautiful and touching tribute to Oscar Wilde, the equally moving Death in Leamington (which opens the collection) alongside many poems extolling the glories and virtues of Cornwall, the Home Counties, tennis-playing gals, outer London suburbs - Chesterton, another lover of N London suburbs and of the strange allure of the mundane, might have liked these - and the cheerfully camp.
Andrew Motion offers an illuminating, pleasingly brief introduction, and the book should be on every poetry lover's shelf. Betjeman's was often the art that conceals art, but there are enough unknown or surprising gems in these pages to reward those for whom JB has hitherto proved resistible.
He was one person of whom it can justifiably be said that if he hadn't existed, he would have had to have been invented.
I wouldn't want a diet of Betjeman alone, but dipped into every now and then, his poetry - like his prose - is a tonic, and a frequently unsettling experience. For example, take the poem Late-Flowering Lust:
My head is bald, my breath is bad,
Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
When I was young in sin
I run my fingers down your dress
With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
And maybe feel the same
But I've a picture of my own
On this reunion night,
Wherein two skeletons are shown
To hold each other tight;
Dark sockets look on emptiness
Which once was loving-eyed [...]
There are many more where that came from. He could be macabre, doleful, and as bereft of solace as Larkin any day.
Cosy? I should cocoa!
It could almost be Poe.
on 8 November 2012
All that I expected and more, this book gives a comprehensive insight into the works of Betjeman as well as a resume of his life, memories of a long gone era when things were definitely slower, the summers full of sunshine, people with character and most of all the architecture. His memory lasts on with his amazing bid to save Victorian gothic architecture, particularly St Pancras Railway Station, a place to visit in it's own right, no destination required, with the immortal statue of a man that saw so much of quintessential England and it's people that we miss nowadays in our busy lives, a must read for young and old, nostalgia and history. *****
on 4 March 2013
This is an ideal collection for the poetry fan, the Betjeman fan, or for anyone who wants a comprehensive introduction to John Betjeman. Well arranged, excellent coverage of his work, and the poems simply speak for themselves!
Can certainly recommend.