Sunday 26 July 2015

Young Betjeman: 'Wanting to be up to date but really preferring all centuries to my own'

I've been reading Ghastly Good Taste, or a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, a little book written in 1933 by the young John Betjeman - reading it not, alas, in the original edition with its typographical extravaganza of a front cover, but in a 'National Trust Classics' reprint from the Eighties.
 The fun begins with the Preface, in which the author professes himself indebted to 'Mr C.S. Lewis, of Oxford, whose jolly personality and encouragement of the author in his youth have remained an unfading memory for the author's declining years'. In fact, Lewis showed undisguised contempt for the young Betjeman, regarding him as an 'idle prig' and effete socialite, and doing his bit to ensure Betjeman's ignominious (if well deserved) academic failure at Oxford.
 There follows Betjeman's introduction to the 1970 reprint of Ghastly Good Taste - An Aesthete's Apologia - which is arguably the best thing in the book. 'I wrote this book 38 years ago,' he begins. 'I was 26, in love, and about to be married. When Anthony Blond said he would like to reprint it, I thought I had better read it, and he kindly sent me a copy. I am appalled by its sententiousness, arrogance and the sweeping generalisations in which it abounds. The best things about it were the fancy cover, which I designed myself... ' and the Street of Taste, or the March of English Art Down the Ages, a deliberately old-fashioned pull-out drawn by Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh (and sadly absent from my reprint).
 By way of introduction, then, Betjeman  treats us to an entertaining 'aesthetic autobiography' up to the date when Ghastly Good Taste was published. This seems to him, he says, the only way to explain the state of mind that led him 'to dash out this book in something like a white-hot fury'. It was the product, he concludes, of a 'muddled state - wanting to be up to date but really preferring all centuries to my own'. And it is undeniably a muddle of a book, though an often rewarding and sometimes glorious muddle, and never less than fun.
 After an opening chapter, written in the form of an address to 'One of the Landed Gentry', Betjeman begins the second chapter thus: 'The first chapter of this book was in the nature of an apostrophe. Those who have understood it need go no further, for the succeeding chapters are but elaborations of the opening theme; those who did not understand it need go no further, since the elaborations will not help them. There is little reason for my continuing the rest of the book beyond pleasing my publisher, and indulging my own pleasure in writing and gaining that money which I cannot come by honestly.'
 It is also quite possible, though Betjeman doesn't point this out, to glean the argument of the book from the running commentary at the top of every right-hand page (another deliberately old-fashioned feature). Taken sequentially, they read:
 'The curse of the expert, the blind man in the street, the smug architect - and his awfully jolly assistants - but what is architecture? Oh! for a faith to work for wholly! The architecture of faith is characterised by logic and fearlessness, is liable to misinterpretation. The loss of faith and the growth of pedantry resulted in an incongruity of style properly called Jacobethan. The fine old English renaissance, this was hard and reasonable and fit for autocrats who will have no nonsense in freak styles from abroad but, instead, honest buildings at once impressive, dignified and original and, withal, Protestant. O natural and unaffected spacious days of the Regency, with your modest terraces, sound sense, no style being all styles and deceit being no style. Then, England knew how to build for the Hanoverians, for the Empire and the towns, and not only for the autocrat. The pride of the purse and the incipient snobbery of aristocrat and plutocrat caused a travesty of Regency styles and an uneducated, machine-made Gothic. But good old vulgarity is preferable to 'refeenment' - from which the great William Morris. In unity is strength.'
 For a short book, Ghastly Good Taste is surprisingly full of long quotations - some from architectural historians but most from miscellaneous literature and letters, including a long correspondence between Lord Ongley and his architect, Batty Langley (and a poem by Betjeman himself). There are also some amusing footnotes by the later Betjeman. A reference to 'hard logic' is footnoted 'About which I didn't then know anything, and still know nothing.' Mention of 'the sham classicism of Norman Shaw' inspires the note 'Who, I now realise, was our greatest architect since Wren, if not greater.'
 Ghastly Good Taste ends with one final flourish, listing the places in which it was written (in the manner of Joyce's 'Trieste, Dublin, Zurich' at the end of Portrait of the Artist):
 'Castlepollard - Capri - Heston-Hounslow - Wiesbaden.'
 Not bad for a book 'dashed out' in 'something like a white-hot fury'...

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