A Salute to Betjeman

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On Hampstead Heath a leisured stroll
To calm the mind and soothe the soul –
North London’s take on Flatford Mill –
The air is thick with heat, and still,
The sunshine gilds the two hilltops
Burnishes meadow, pond and copse.
All round a gorgeous vista spreads
Though (adders lurk in all woodsheds)
The TV mast on Highgate Hill’s
A blot; the Royal Free – bitter pills
For anyone who cares, to swallow
And doubtless, some day, worse will follow
As Betjeman once prophesied
While all around him beauty died.

I sit beneath a spreading oak
In whose wide shade Jack Straw once spoke
(Or might have) to the multitude
As nation-changing trouble brewed,
And fish out from my bag the book
That, in unheedful haste, I took
Along with me today. I scan
The cover – find it’s . . . Betjeman!
The self-same legendary lamenter
Of parking lot and shopping centre,
Church wrecking-balled and hedgerow felled
On whom my thoughts have briefly dwelled
Already. ‘Christ!’ I think, ‘not him!
All old-style rhyme and meter – grim!’

At once ‘A Bay in Anglesey’
With its sure grip on prosody
And masterly descriptive power
Painterly in its image shower
Disarms my modernist prejudice –
No mere hack rhymester writes like this:
The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried
Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulas pink with thrift.
A poet needs no more to speak
In his defence than a technique
That Tennyson would not have scorned.

In more than half his work he warned
Of ineluctable decline
And kicked against the pricks of Time,
Conservative defines his views,
Nostalgia’s, as it were, his muse.
But his brave railing at decay
And longing for a bygone day
Speak loud to us, leap off the page
In this jejune and tasteless age.
If all nostalgia has been banned
For England’s green and pleasant land
Still ‘Slough’ presents us someth

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About the contributor

Ranjit Bolt was born in Manchester in 1959 of Anglo-Indian parentage. His translations and adaptations of foreign classic plays have been performed in major theatres all over the English-speaking world, including the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The illustrations in this article are by Daniel Macklin.

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