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Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, John Murray

When does eccentric old bufferism cross the line and become inept reactionary dufferism? The life of the once immensely popular English poet John Betjeman illustrates many examples, as a new biography by Bevis Hillier reveals.

Betjeman was born in 1906 in North London, the son of the head of a cabinet-making firm, Ernest Betjemann. After primary school in Highgate, Betjeman went to Dragon School, Oxford, then Marlborough College, and in 1925 he was accepted, by the skin of his teeth, for English at Magdalen College, Oxford. The public school system and his attendance at Oxford would soon be crucial to his success as a poet, and to his private need to secure employment.

In the last century, despite educational reform, a great deal of high-profile poetry from England was dominated by Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Oxbridge was a hallmarking factory for poetry: an unreliable one, as it has proven in the long run, a “forger” of poetry standards in both senses of the word. Even friends remarked at Betjeman's well-honed networking skills, and Oxford proved just the place for him to begin to develop friendships with members of the aristocracy and other soon-to-be influential figures. Betjeman only differed from the dubious norm in not actually succeeding at Oxford: he left without a degree. Nevertheless, the Oxford brand was so strong his failure was far from fatal.

Most of his later employment came not on merit alone: in several jobs he was lackadaisical and incompetent. Work was secured, rather, through contacts made at university or at his old schools, or through simple association with those institutions. Later on, this would also mean that his books of poetry and his guidebooks to English counties did tend to get reviewed. Until his poetry turned sour in A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), they tended to get sympathetic reviews, too. It is hard to imagine that a writer from outside that world would have succeeded on the basis of his slight talents, and his serial ineptitude at work also suggests that the public school system carried him again and again.

In 1933 he married Penelope Chetwoode, daughter of Sir Philip Chetwoode, Commander-in-Chief of the Army in India. Betjeman called her, affectionately it seems, "Filth". From early on there must have been a sense of a terrible mistake having been made. Penelope was a good horsewoman: in fact she was obsessed by all things equestrian. Betjeman had disliked horses before he met Penelope, and soon grew to hate them, so much of an obliterating priority were they in Penelope's worldview. As in horses so in in their relationship in general: a love of Lords and Ladies was one of the only enthusiasms they seem to have shared. Other than that, their domestic arrangement must have felt like a cross between drawings by the horse cartoonist Thelwell and Edvard Munch's The Scream. They stayed together, but Betjeman had affairs, the most significant with another glittering aristo, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret.

Hillier doesn't say very much about the Betjemans' son and daughter. Betjeman seems to have been distant from them, especially Paul, the first-born. Betjeman was clearly repeating in some degree his own relationship with his father, which was an arms-length one, too, made worse by Betjeman’s decision not to work in his father’s firm, but to try for an upper class literary life. Hillier does not explore this, preferring a style which generally eschews psychological speculation for a more empirical, "so-and-so came over then so-and-so said this" approach. This unintentionally rather underlines the frenetic networking Betjeman continued to carry out after he had left university.

In the late nineteen twenties and thirties, the number of jobs Betjeman had is a testament to the Establishment’s misguided but endless faith in its own: private secretary to the Irish statesman Sir Horace Plunkett, film critic on the Evening Standard, on the staff of the Architectural Review, editor of the interior design magazine Decoration, etcetera etcetera - as well as various freelance work, such as his Shell guide to Cornwall, and his broadcasts on BBC radio (and even on pre-War BBC television). It was only when War broke out and he was able to secure employment at the Ministry of Information that he seems to have found a day-job that he did effectively. This was when he was posted to Dublin as the press officer for the UK Representative in Ireland.

Hillier shows that he was a great success there. By more mildly self-dramatising himself and Penelope as an eccentric but lovable example of an English couple, and by refusing to put out mere propaganda, he was able to embody a seemingly harmless but honest English daftness. It appears to have gone down very well indeed.

On this occasion, however, his success was almost the death of him: the IRA actually began plans to assassinate him. This may have been because he was too good at his job and the IRA were ambivalent, to put it generously, about the prospect of Britain winning the War. Just as likely was that they suspected him of being a spy. As Ireland had officially declined to be involved in the Second World War, and its territory was of strategic importance to both the Allies and the Germans, Betjeman's eyes and ears may well have been used more than his official post demanded of him. A mysterious letter relating to Betjeman "fishing" on the west coast - a pastime he disliked as much as horseriding - certainly raises the question of clandestine activity concerned with marine navigation. Happily for Betjeman, the IRA must have had second thoughts – perhaps they read his c.v. and decided they could let him do his own damage. If so, they made a mistake: so much of a good impression had he made on the Irish print media that when he did leave, his departure was front page news.

Betjeman would later make pioneering interventions in the arena of town planning, significantly encouraging the public, albeit in a reactionary way, to take more of an interest in their built environment. Immediately after the war, though, he reverted to his natural dufferism, working ineffectually for a year as an administrator at the British Council. In 1946 he became Secretary to the Oxford Preservation Trust, a job whose architectural interests motivated him rather more, but which again he carried out less than excellently. Nevertheless, further radio appearances kept him before the public, and from 1948 he lived by freelance work for the print and broadcast media.

His high public profile, and his rather old-fashioned verse, meant sales of his poetry increased, and this second volume of a projected three tome set takes the reader up to the highpoint of 1958, the year of his extremely successful Collected Poems. It sold at the rate of a thousand copies a day in its first few weeks. Such popularity certainly makes Betjeman a “phenomenon” and worthy of a biography (other single-volume biographies exist), but really his poetry simply lived up to its unassuming aesthetic, and would surely not have had the hold on the public had not Betjeman had such good connections. As such this huge biographical project is overblown and ill-conceived. It is difficult to say whether Betjeman, who died in 1984, would have approved of it as another example of English eccentricity, or whether he would have been embarrassed by a flurry of details which inadvertently reveal what a privileged and unearned literary life he led.

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