Thursday 3 December 2020


 Scrub that. Here it is, more or less...

Being Betjeman(n) By Jonathan Smith (Galileo Publishers) 

  Why the bracketed second ‘n’ in Betjeman(n)? It denotes the young John Betjemann’s truncating of his too Germanic-sounding surname – one of many impulsive acts that, understandably enough, enraged his deaf, conventional-minded father, Ernest Betjemann, head of a successful ornamental houseware business. Explosive rows between father and son punctuate this unusual and engaging book, and painful they are to read, with both sides flinging vicious insults, while young John’s mother desperately tries to calm things down. It is easy to see in these scenes the roots of the guilt feelings that haunted Betjeman all his life, and of the troubled relationship between him and his own son.
   One of the worst rows, following Betjeman’s journey to Cornwall to break it to his parents that he has been sent down from Oxford, makes the opening scene of Jonathan Smith’s narrative – a narrative that does not begin until 30-odd pages into the book. This is no straightforward biography, nor even a straightforward fictionalised life; it is a highly original treatment of its subject, written by a man with first-hand experience of ‘being Betjeman’. Jonathan Smith is a writer, mostly of novels, with long experience of ‘being’ various people, if only in the sense of imitating their mannerisms: at different times in his life, he has ‘been’, among others, Albert Speer, W.E. Henley, Winston Churchill, August Rodin and Alfred Munnings – and not for writing purposes. Being Betjeman, however, was different: as the author explains in the pages that precede that first dramatised row, ‘it was a much deeper thing than merely taking him off or ventriloquising’. It began when, after years of mild obsession with the poet, he wrote a piece in Betjeman’s voice, ‘and I felt I was, in quite a disturbing way, inhabiting his skin’. And it was while ‘being Betjeman’ that Smith had what can only be a described as a breakdown – one that came on, with frightening suddenness, on a beach in Cornwall (Betjeman country). Then, just as he was beginning to get back on top of things, Smith realised he was developing Parkinson’s, the disease of Betjeman’s old age.
    It was against this background that Smith started writing in earnest about Betjeman (and, yes, as Betjeman). He wrote a pair of excellent radio plays, Mr Betjeman’s Class and Mr Betjeman Regrets, with Benjamin Whitrow playing the older Betjeman (a role that ended up being shared seamlessly with Robert Bathurst after Whitrow’s death). But he still wanted to write more, and differently, and the result is this beguiling, often funny and always readable book, which combines disarmingly frank autobiography with a biography that unfolds partly in dramatised scenes, partly in interior monologue and even prayers, partly in straight third-person narrative, partly in first-person.
   In part two of the three-part narrative, Smith takes us behind the scenes of the making of the radio plays, and treats us to perhaps rather too much green room chat, and a little too much of Ben Whitrow, wonderful actor though he was. Things pick up again in part three, which covers Betjeman’s later years, though the chronology continues to mingle past and present, and the autobiographical strand continues to run in parallel with the biography.
  Along the way there are generous quotations from Betjeman’s poems, mostly from his less famous, darker works. Smith quotes from 'Guilt', one of Betjeman's most self-lacerating poems – 'I haven't hope, I haven't faith. / I live two lives and sometimes three. / The lives I live make life a death / For those who have to live with me.' He was right about that, as his wife, the splendid but wholly incompatible Penelope Chetwode, knew all too well. Smith dramatises painful scenes from the Betjemans' married life – rows as epic as those with his father – and still more painful scenes between the poet and his son Paul, whom he treated cruelly, driven by the demons of his own boyhood. Betjeman, looking back, rightly blames himself for all of this, and more, but Smith's portrait of him is subtle enough to recognise that the poet also took a kind of pleasure, even pride, in his transgressions and shortcomings, and that 'to write he needed the creative juice of frustration. Contentment and comfort was no help to him at all, so being married to The Propellor [his nickname for Penelope] had on that front been a boon.' Frustration and the complications of love probably made him the poet he was, at the expense of personal happiness (and the happiness of others) – and yet he seems to have ended up, in his later years, giving a thoroughly convincing impression of a contented, genial and lovable man. This deeply affectionate portrait comes to something very like a happy ending.
   Like any Betjeman admirer of similar vintage (he is in his late seventies), Smith has met with bafflement and outright hostility when his passion for Betjeman has become known. At Cambridge the mockery was so relentless that he removed his copy of Summoned by Bells from his shelves and hid it away in a drawer. I must admit that, ten years later, with Betjeman laying on the avuncular charm on every TV chat show, I would have been among the mockers. In later years, however, as I read more, particularly of his earlier verse, I realised that Betjeman was a very fine, interesting and complex poet, for all his penchant for jog-along rhythms and simple rhymes. He was also, of course, a very much more interesting, complex and troubled man than the genial laureate, the nation’s teddy bear, who twinkled his way into the country’s affections. Being Betjeman(n) brings alive both the light and the dark in his make-up, and is a book that every Betjeman lover – and, come to that, every Betjeman mocker – should read.

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