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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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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 something true, What Pope said poetry should do – Express, that is, ‘what oft was thought’, A common feeling neatly caught, It’s not their fault they do not know The birdsong from the radio, It’s not their fault they often go To Maidenhead. Snobbish, and yet we side with him And go out with him on his limb: ‘Encase your Legs in nylons’ sings Of equally depressing things And, in the same dark vein, decries Taste’s, beauty’s, hastening demise: Encase your legs in nylons, Bestride your hills with pylons O age without a soul; Away with gentle willows And all the elmy billows That through your valleys roll. This dwelling on lost sights and times – Reactionary, and yet it chimes When I look up and, with a chill, See that mast marring Highgate Hill And, in retreat from philistines And Nokia’s dastardly designs, St Michael’s now beleaguered spire Pricking the bums of the heavenly choir. One of the poet’s chief regrets Was having missed his share of sex. His Surrey subaltern’s love song, Famously, hits us with a strong Aroma of testosterone (Apparently the poet’s own).* What literate, lusty male’s not yearned To have his tennis serve returned By his own Miss Joan Hunter Dunn? Lord Alfred would have chalked this one Up on his list of twenty best And it sails through the Kipling test. Here’s proof that writing from the heart Can still be consonant with art: Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk, And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk, And cool the veranda that welcomes us in To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin . . . The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall. With masterly economy A few sharp details let us see A typical Home Counties scene While sex, as the implicit theme, Is handled with an attitude That’s neither innocent nor crude And details accurate as a laser: A mere discarded shorts and blazer, The bubbling of a bath being run By the delectable Miss Dunn Are filled with an erotic charge Here is the girl next door writ large. Then there’s that winsome tone – aloof, Amused, detached, yet not quite proof Against the charms of Aldershot, Bourgeois, conventional, or not. So, flimsy though he sometimes seems, He does attack the larger themes, Nor is he always frivolous Or quite insouciant when he does. After a terrible review He thinks of suicide, but in lieu Uses ‘Tregardock’ to work out, With great aplomb, angst, gloom, self-doubt: And I, on my volcano edge, Exposed to ridicule and hate Still do not dare to leap the ledge And smash to pieces on the slate. In ‘Death in Leamington’ this gloom Is present in the lonely room Where an old lady dies alone – An easy mastery of tone, That eye for detail and, again, Rhythmically, Kipling’s influence plain: She bolted the big round window, She let the blinds unroll, She set a match to the mantle, She covered the fire with coal. That’s not the Betjeman the slick Modernist critics love to kick, All tea and scones and porticoes, But it is poetry, not prose Chopped into bits and written down In stanzas by some skill-less clown. Betjeman asks: what’s wrong with form? Slack, shapeless tripe may be the norm In these none-too-poetic times When poets shun meter, spit on rhymes Maintaining there’s no substance to them When actually they just can’t do them, But, notwithstanding, discipline Was never, isn’t now, a sin. I recall having little time For Betjeman in my fiery prime. He’d read his poems on TV Or radio, and it would be At him, not with him, that I laughed But now I can admire his craft, Conceding that in naked skill There lies huge merit. And I still, After that Hampstead afternoon – Like hearing someone sing in tune After a droning rapper loon – Will put aside some fool collection And choose Sir John for an injection Of wit, sheer competence, panache – Something, in short, that we’d be rash To overlook, and ought to treasure: Poetry one can read for pleasure. *The subject of the poem, Joan Jackson, née Hunter Dunn, was, as is well documented, an acquaintance of Betjeman, who fell in love with her, composing in her honour ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, in which he fantasizes about their engagement.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Ranjit Bolt 2014


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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