About John Betjeman

Later on one learns what one likes; amibguity; what makes one laugh; what makes one smile wryly; what makes one sad; what makes one grateful; uplifted; and one day comes a time to choose – books of one’s own; opinions of one’s own; perhaps even a gentle humility of a kind. So is life.

Thus it was that I came to love the work of John Betjeman.

My Mother introduced me to his lucid poetry and as a boy I was really disappointed by it. Like many children, I was not mature enough to be attracted by sophisticated concepts (although I thought I was).

Mother’s choice for me was a selection of poems in a book called “A Ring of Bells”. Sadly, I no longer have the book, beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone though it was. No; even more than that, it was a first edition. I just did not appreciate it. That does not mean to say that I did not take care of it. I did love the paper it was printed on and I loved the illustrations. But the poems themselves left me cold.

I suppose I wanted more of the comfortable rhymes of my youth

– those of Hilaire Belloc, and perhaps those of A A Milne. The Betjeman promised well but all the reference points were outwith my limited and very narrow life experience.

But I never gave up.

Some years later I started to notice Betjeman more.

He was on the television quite often. He narrated documentaries about the development of London and its suburbs. He appeared on a chat show. He also visited old places on trains with hissing and clanky locomotives. He wore a porkpie hat and a raincoat which flapped about, and although he spoke in a voice which was less animated than one might have expected, his observations were quite devastating.

Reading is not an easy thing.

Reading requires engagement. Reading requires quiet. People who recommend reading – in particular, teachers – are often not readers themselves. Reading is not an activity to be despised. It is something vital. Something to be pursued actively. I doubt that some of my teachers ever read a book at all. About anything.

But one of my teachers was a reader.

His name was Hilton and he knew that not everybody like to read. But he was a learned man and he worked like an absolute trooper to get us to read things. Over the years I thought a lot about him and I now place my thanks here, in public, in default of ever having thanked him for the efforts that he went to in order to enthuse us.

But Betjeman was always there

and as the years went by, less likely to be read. The book lay on a shelf. Little did I know that Betjeman himself had written about that kind of present (and the sorrow and anguish that such a gift might cause). But in 1977, I was lent a copy of a book by one of my sisters. It was “The Diary of a Nobody” by George and Weedon Grossmith. What I liked (in retrospect) was the way that she just handed me the book. There was no precis given and there was no encouragement to read it at all. But I did read it. And as I read it, I became aware that I was reading the most horrible and rotten book that I think I ever read at all. It was simply appalling. I did finish the book but I absolutely hated the contents.

Apparently, The Diary of a Nobody

is one of the great humourous novels in English and the main protagonist, Charles Pooter, one of the great English comic characters. The book punches low and below the belt. The snobbery and archness that brought about its creation is sickening stuff. The writers dined out splendidly on the funds therefrom and both of them died before 1920.

So what is the Betjeman connection?

Well Betjeman spoke kindly of the characters of The Diary of a Nobody. This made me reach for my “A Ring of Bells” again. I could not fail to be impressed by Betjeman’s braveness in standing up for these characters – especially when one thinks about the fact that much of the establishment holds that “The Diary of a Nobody” is really funny and worth reading. As I say, it really is not. It is not witty, nor is it funny in the least. It is unworthy of print and it celebrates a sort of Englishness of which everybody who is English should be thoroughly ashamed, and better still, ready to ditch completely. If “The Diary of a Nobody” is the pinnacle in the literary achievement of the Grossmith brothers, then how awful and tawdry the remainder of their forgotten and uncelebrated sheaves of crapola must be. For “The Diary of a Nobody” is the veriest rubbish; a festering literary pimple on the arse of rotten snobbery.

But, had it not been for that book, I should not have come to appreciate Betjeman. And I do know how his stuff works, and why it works, and the clues are all there – although sadly unseen by almost everybody.

Betjeman is without doubt a star poet

and one who conceals an iron fist in a velvet glove. His own thoughts on “The Diary of a Nobody” are kindly and I liked to think when I read his poem that I had come to the same conclusion as he had – that “The Diary of a Nobody” was cheap, and written by two people taking a cheap shot at humanity. G and W Grossmith laboured their unfunny points excruciatingly and in their own shitty way, tell everybody far more about who they were (or weren’t) or thought they were (or thought they weren’t) than about whom they had aimed their prissy piss-filled pens.

Read and celebrate Betjeman. He really is worth the effort. For his kindness and humanity. For his ability to express what most of us find inexpressible is the stuff which is needed to calm the present storm.

Thoughts on “The Diary of a Nobody”

The Pooters walked to Watney Lodge
One Sunday morning hot and still
Where public footpaths used to dodge
Round elms and oaks to Muswell Hill.

That burning buttercuppy day
The local dogs were curled in sleep,
The writhing trunks of flowery May
Were polished by the sides of sheep.

And only footsteps in a lane
And birdsong broke the silence round
And chuffs of the Great Northern train
For Alexandra Palace bound.

The Watney Lodge I seem to see
Is gabled gothic hard and red,
With here a monkey puzzle tree
And there a round geranium bed.

Each mansion, each new-planted pine,
Each short and ostentatious drive
Meant Morning Prayer and beef and wine
And Queen Victoria alive.

Dear Charles and Carrie, I am sure,
Despite that awkward Sunday dinner,
Your lives were good and more secure
Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner.

John Betjeman


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