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John Betjeman

AN Wilson outside his Camden Home

Betjeman's great defender

A N Wilson's biography of John Betjeman shows the late poet laureate as a product of his Highgate childhood, writes Jane Wright

THE late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman once wrote: “I think people’s lives are interesting only up until they are 21.”
In a new biography of Betjeman, publication of which is set to coincide with the centenary of the poet’s birth next August, writer and biographer A N Wilson will clearly cover the whole story until his death in 1984. But he states unequivocally that John Betjeman was “utterly, completely and 100 per cent” a product of his Highgate childhood.
Another north London man, Wilson tells me at his home in Regent’s Park Terrace, Camden Town: “No one else would have written Betjeman’s extraordinary poem Parliament Hill Fields. He’s central to this area, the great genius of the place.”
The poem describes a boyhood tram ride home as Betjeman was:
Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town,
Soft the light suburban evening caught our
ashlar-speckled spire
Eighteen sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions, flashing fine French window fire.
Oh the after-tram-ride quiet when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond.
Wilson has no truck with parodies of Betjeman’s style, including the biographer’s Camden Town near-neighbour, playwright Alan Bennett, who wrote the Betjeman-mocking poem Place-Names of China.
Wilson says: “I hope to be the great defender of John Betjeman. You have to be a genius to see poetry in what shampoo we use, as he did. He focussed on the whole of life in this country, including trains and office girls, which had never been done in poetry before.
Wilson says that Summoned by Bells, Betjeman’s great 1960 autobiographical poem, which deals extensively with his Highgate childhood is “in the same league as Wordsworth’s Preludes”.
Moreover, the biographer continues, Sir John had already found his unique poetic style in until he was 10, before the family moved to west London. (Betjemin’s parents actually lived in Parliament Hill Mansions, Lissenden Gardens, when the poet was born, before moving up to Highgate West Hill). At Highgate Junior School he was taught by TS Eliot, to whom he solemnly handed an early notebook of his poems. But Wilson says: “He didn’t try and copy him. Rather than be an imitator, he found his own voice from a very early age.”
Reassuringly for Betjeman fans in north London, his boyhood home, of which he wrote: “Deeply I love thee, 31 West Hill,” is according to Wilson, “still privately owned and more or less the same, apart from the addition of a porch. A blue heritage plaque will be put up there later this year to mark Betjeman’s centenary.”
Also intact are the Anglican churches of St Anne’s and St Mary Brookfield, where Wilson says he worshipped with his parents, and which, “as the north London poems show” sparked the religious life so fundamental to Betjeman, which the biography aims fully to explore.
Indeed, Wilson continues, the buildings of Betjeman’s boyhood were “the great inspiration” for another of his lifelong passions, his love of Georgian and Victorian architecture and his battles to conserve it. The biographer, author of The Victorians, explains: “All the first buildings Betjeman saw were round here, on walks with his father. And he could see proper architecture in other people’s boring suburbs. He was incredibly learned and knew every street in London backwards and did enormous amounts of unpaid work to save a lost and wrecked Britain before conservation was really invented.”
A founder of the Victorian Society and one-time editor of the Architectural Review, the poet later became involved in the unsuccessful 1960s campaign to save the original 19th-century Euston station, together with its giant entry arch.
At Highgate Junior School, A N Wilson says: “He was very badly bullied. It was the First World War and he had a German-sounding name. Afterwards he lived with depression and terror all his life, of reviews of his work, for example, which fits in very well with his formative experience.”
Meanwhile, his cabinet-maker father Ernest’s factory showroom on Pentonville Road, Islington, became a focus of what Wilson describes as the poet’s “wallowing guilt,” after only child Sir John refused to follow his father into the family firm.
Wilson explains that Betjeman had “a very difficult relationship with his father,” one of the reasons why he is not buried with him in the family vault in Highgate West Cemetery, but in Cornwall. He continues: “It wasn’t practically possible for Betjeman to keep the firm going after his father died suddenly in 1934. Yet I’ve discovered he actually did a vast amount to help his mother find a buyer for it.”
So, 100 years on, what does Wilson see as Betjeman’s legacy?
He answers unhesitatingly: “His poetry. Though he changed our way of looking at the past, he was a complete failure as a conservationist, as all conservationists have been. He also wrote a great deal of bad poetry as Poet Laureate, because the subjects aren’t inspiring. But at least 25 of his other poems are masterpieces, and that’s a very high proportion indeed.”

Business Girls

From the geyser ventilators
Autumn winds are blowing down
On a thousand business women
Having baths in Camden Town

Waste pipes chuckle into runnels,
Steam’s escaping here and there,
Morning trains through Camden cutting
Shake the Crescent and the Square.

Early nip of changeful autumn,
Dahlias glimpsed through garden doors,
At the back precarious bathrooms
Jutting out from upper floors;

And behind their frail partitions
Business women lie and soak,
Seeing through the draughty skylight
Flying clouds and railway smoke.

Rest you there, poor unbelov’d ones,
Lap your loneliness in heat.
All too soon the tiny breakfast,
Trolley-bus and windy street!
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