A centennial retrospective of a 'major minor poet.'
Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By BEVIS HILLIER
If you write a biography of Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, as my friends Richard Ellmann and Michael Holroyd have respectively done, the books sell in America. My life of John Betjeman has been a top bestseller in Britain; but only a puny number of copies have sold in the United States. Why is that? An American friend (I worked at the Los Angeles Times for five years) explained: "He's too damn Briddish."
Though Betjeman had a foreign name--his immigrant ancestors were German--he became the most British . . . no, the most English of English poets. He writes about things that are peculiarly English, in a peculiarly English style. To understand him, you need to know about gymkhanas, Women's Institutes, the difference between Cooper's Oxford marmalade and Golden Shred marmalade, the social rank that use of the phrase "beg pardon" betrays, and the last night of the Proms (the riotous final concert of the season at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where the audience sings "Land of Hope and Glory" and "Rule Britannia").
Dylan Thomas tried to introduce Betjeman poems to an audience of bobby soxers in the 1940s; later, Philip Larkin, a poet often compared to Betjeman, also tried the experiment. Neither was wholly successful, and they are hard acts to follow; but I'll have a go.
I first met him, through a happy accident, in 1971, when he was 65 and I was 31. My mother--who had some of the more benign attributes of a witch--would have said our encounter was "meant." In 1969 I had been invited to a boardroom lunch at the Times, on whose staff I had served for six years. I found myself sitting next to the wine correspondent of the newspaper, Colonel Andrew Graham. He was rather like a colonel in an Agatha Christie whodunit; ramrod back, clipped accent, neat isosceles moustache. After awhile, I noticed that he was brushing the wine waiter aside.
"Is Lord Thomson's wine so filthy?" I asked, referring to the Canadian proprietor of the Times.
Graham replied: "You're meant to know something about pottery and porcelain, aren't you?" (I had had a book published on those subjects the previous year.) "How would you like it, if every lunch you went to, you were asked to turn the soup-plate upside down and pronounce on the quality of the ware? Well, that's the sort of thing that happens to me with wine. So I'm having beer instead."
That broke the ice. We chatted and in the year that followed became friends. One day, in 1971, Graham said to me: "Look, I used to be comptroller of the British Embassy in Paris--in charge of catering--under both Duff Cooper and Gladwyn Jebb. As a result, I know virtually everyone who's anyone. What I propose to do is this: I shall invite you, and any two people of your choice, to lunch at my flat in the Charterhouse [London]. Whom do you choose?"
After some careful thought, I chose Sir John Betjeman and Lady Diana Cooper--the celebrated beauty and wit whom men had already been clambering on to tables to look at when she arrived at parties in 1912.
Because Graham was wine correspondent of The Times, he received superb samples of wine--I think there was even a Pétrus. Those lubricated the conversation, and we all got on. That summer, I had organized a big exhibition of Art Deco in Minneapolis. I presented Betjeman with the catalog. He riffled through it enthusiastically, then declared that I had totally converted him to the jazzy 1920s Hoover Building in London. I may be giving myself airs, but I have a feeling that, in some sense, he saw his mantle falling on my shoulders--in that he had championed the despised Victorians; and now here was I, trying to do much the same for the then-abominated Deco style.
After that I met him quite often: first in his flat in Cloth Fair, near Smithfield Market in the City of London; later, for lunch, in a little Italian restaurant near his new home in Chelsea. It could be a bit of an ordeal, having lunch with Betjeman. He would insist on making remarks about other people in the restaurant, in a stentorian stage whisper: "I say, you see those chaps over there. Do you think they're executives? I expect they're discussing profit margins and feasibility surveys." And of one man: "That girl with him, do you think she's his secretary? Are they going back to his flat afterwards?" You could see the man's ears reddening.
Betjeman loved jokes. I remember three in particular. One day, the salmon-like fish called smelt was on the restaurant menu. He ordered it. Bringing the dish to our table, the waiter asked, "Are you smelt, sir?"
Betjeman: "Only by the discerning."