Thursday, 4 June 2020

Going Back

Reading The Betrothed was one of my lockdown projects; the other was writing a short memoir of my life (strictly for family purposes, not for any kind of publication). That too is now done, and I've moved on to something that was more of a retirement project than a lockdown one: going through what I laughingly call 'my papers', i.e. the mass of cuttings, diaries and miscellaneous writings that have been hidden away for some years, unexamined, in two large boxes. So far – and I've barely scratched the surface – it's been a mixed, often interesting and sometimes rewarding experience, and has left me marvelling at the energy I once had, if nothing else. As a penance, I've been ploughing my way through what purports to be a novel, something I laboured over in (I think) the late Seventies and had never looked at since. I'm relieved that no publisher was foolish enough to take it on – and that it's mercifully short. 
  More interesting, by and large, are the book reviews, many of them of books I have no recollection of ever having read, let alone reviewed. And then there are the radio reviews – several years' worth of weekly reviews for the late lamented Listener. Naturally I have no recollection of most of the programmes I wrote about and am just skimming these pieces before replacing them in the box, for later generations to throw away. I also reviewed books for The Listener, and on the back of  a review of Paul Fussell's Caste Marks (long forgotten) in the issue of 7 June 1984, I found this – Gavin Ewart's poetical epitaph for the recently deceased Poet Laureate: 

In Memoriam Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984)

So the last date slides into the bracket
that will appear in all future anthologies –
and in quiet Cornwall and in London's ghastly racket
we are now Betjemanless.
Your verse was very fetching
and, as Byron might have written,
there are many poetic personalities around
that would fetch a man less!

Some of your admirers were verging on the stupid,
you were envied  by poets (more highbrow, more inventive?);
at twenty you had the bow-shaped lips of a Cupid
(a scuffle with Auden too).
But long before your Oxford
and the visiting of churches
you went topographical – on the Underground
(Metroland and Morden too)!

The Dragon School – but Marlborough a real dragon,
with real bullying, followed the bear of childhood,
a kind of gentlemanly cross to crucify a fag on.
We don't repent at leisure,
you were good, and very British.
Serious, considered 'funny',
in your best poems, strong but sad, we found
a most terrific pleasure.

Technically, this a typical bravura exercise, with its clever rhyme scheme (I make it abacdefc, with the added subtlety than the penultimate lines of each stanza rhyme with each other) and avoidance of all masculine line endings. Its tone is affectionate, at least towards the end – in contrast to another Ewart poem on Betjeman. It was rumoured that Gavin Ewart  – the subject of a very late Larkin poem – was considered as a possible successor to the Laureateship, but not for long, and no wonder: he wrote far too much, and too filthily, about sex. 
 Now, back to my papers...

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