Betjemin by A.N.Wilson.
John Betjeman was by far the most popular poet of the 20th century. His collected poems sold over two million copies. Television audiences loved his quirky evocations of landscape and architecture. As Poet Laureate, he became a national icon, but behind the public man were doubts and demons. The poet led a tempestuous emotional life. For much of his 50-year marriage to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a field marshal, Betjeman had a relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and lady in waiting to Princess Margaret. This book was written using the vast archive of personal material relating to Betjeman’s private life.
John Betjeman, poet, champion of architectual conservation and deeply religious man was born in 1906, the only child of a cabinet maker in Highgate, London. This biography by his friend, A.N.Wilson traces the origins of these passions and tries to define the man who, though loved by all who knew him, was hindered throughout his life by self doubt and guilt and a love affair with love.
Like most others of my generation, I was familiar with Betjeman’s deceptively simple verse that seemed somehow to speak of everyday things with candid honesty and unabashed emotion. I also knew that Betjemin was interested in architecture, beacause of his numerous television appearances and programmes, but I hadn’t realised the scope of this passion, nor the importance for him of the prevservation of buildings and the old England he loved so much. His life seemed to be a quest for the way things were…his poetry reflected this, and everyone is familiar with poems such as ‘Slough’ wherein JB bemoans the state of the New Town and prays for ‘friendly bombs’ to demolish it as it is no longer fit for humans! I knew this was an important part of his life, but I had not grasped just how much he cherished the buildings of bygone ages. It is difficult to tell which was more important to JB himself – this desire to preserve and conserve, or his poetry. The two things seem to be intrinsically intertwined.
A third theme throughout his life was his religion, again intrinsic in his writing. He was a devout Anglican and one of the most torturous periods of his life was when his wife, Penelope converted to Catholicism, not least because they had spent much time and energy together working on behalf of the Anglican church. His religious fervour is marked throughout his writing, and is also concentrated around his delight in Churches. From his youth, he travelled the length and breadth of Britain, visiting and admiring churches. It was an interest which never left him until he was confined to a wheelchair and mobility and travelling became more difficult.
A.N.Wilson clearly holds his friend in great esteem and with much affection, but he does not flinch from illustrating JB’s flaws, one of which was women. There seemed to be some controversy as to whehther JB was bisexual. I have to admit to believing he was homosexual before I read the book, and was shocked to find out that he was married for 50 years, until his death, infact, and also had a long time mistress, his live-in partner, Elizabeth Cavendish, Lady in waiting to princess Margaret. Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking this, given that his biographer explains that the contraversy over his sexual orientation did not disappear with time, even though there was little to support it. On the contrary, it appears that JB could not leave women alone, and although most of his ‘affairs’ were not consummated, he lived for the thrill of falling in love and admiring a beautiful female. It seems he always had to be in love. As soon as one adoration finished, another started. This flaw, a lack of commitment to his wife, albeit it only physically, as he loved her until he died, can perhaps be traced back to his childhood and the closeness with his mother. Or perhaps it is some desire to gain love from a maternal figure…but his passion for women never ceased, although it bought much pain to the two women who loved him most.
As a result of some of this information, I found my previous perception of Betjeman was somewhat inaccurate, and whilst I had much admired the man who wrote and perfomed Metroland for a television programme, and wrote of his love for Miss Joan Hunter Dunn (A Subaltern’s Love Song), I began to feel as the biography progressed that I didn’t like BJ much at all. Admire, yes, and still enjoy his work, and join in his aspirations to preserve the old, but like…probably not. He came across as weak and selfish. Although A.N.Wilson explains that he was wracked with guilt about the way he treated his wife, over the course of many years, it didn;t stop him repeating the same mistakes over and over and causing much pain to other people. Nor did her learn from his experiences as a child and make good his relationship with his son, Paul, who was treated very shabbily and uncaringly it seems, by both parents. Relationships, especially with family and loved ones are important and should be cherished, and so regretfully JB went down in my estimation. It will not stop me admiring the work of the former poet Laureate but I have to admit that this book changed my feelings about Betjeman in a way I had not expected.
The biography is well written and interesting, although a little repetitive in places. As I listened to the audio version, I cannot quote and illustrate as I would like, but suffice to say that it was a book which shook all my perceptions of this man, and which I enjoyed a great deal. I will read Betjeman’s work from a slightly different perspective from now on.
Susie / Kimmikat