Sunday 28 August 2016

A Party Poem for Betjeman's Birthday

Today is the 110th birthday of John Betjeman, 'poet and hack' (as he described himself). He was perhaps the last truly popular poet laureate we'll ever have, a writer of easy-to-read 'light verse' that is often surprisingly dark-edged and always strangely ambivalent.
 In this poem, False Security, Betjeman abandons his usual jogalong metre to re-enter his Highgate childhood, recreating its fears and anxieties and its redeeming joys...

I remember the dread with which I at a quarter past four
Let go with a bang behind me our house front door
And, clutching a present for my dear little hostess tight,
Sailed out for the children's party into the night
Or rather the gathering night. For still some boys
In the near municipal acres were making a noise
Shuffling in fallen leaves and shouting and whistling
And running past hedges of hawthorn, spiky and bristling.
And black in the oncoming darkness stood out the trees
And pink shone the ponds in the sunset ready to freeze
And all was still and ominous waiting for dark
And the keeper was ringing his closing bell in the park
And the arc lights started to fizzle and burst into mauve
As I climbed West Hill to the great big house in the grove,
Where the children's party was and the dear little hostess.
But halfway up stood the empty house where the ghost is.
I crossed to the other side and under the arc
Made a rush for the next kind lamppost out of the dark
And so to the next and the next till I reached the top
Where the grove branched off to the left. Then ready to drop
I ran to the ironwork gateway of number seven
Secure at last on the lamp lit fringe of heaven.
Oh who can say how subtle and safe one feels
Shod in ones children's sandals from Daniel Neal's,
Clad in one's party clothes made of stuff from Heal's?
And who can still one's thrill at the candle shine
On cakes and ices and jelly and blackcurrant wine,
And the warm little feel of my hostess's hand in mine?
Can I forget my delight at the conjuring show?
And wasn't I proud that I was the last to go?
Too overexcited and pleased with myself to know
That the words I heard my hostess's mother employ
To a guest departing, would ever diminish my joy,

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