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December 03, 2009

David Womersley shines a light on some of the less cuddly features of the man who became the nation's teddy-bear: Betjeman's England - John Betjeman

Posted by David Womersley

Betjeman's England
by John Betjeman; edited by Stephen Games.
Pp. xvi + 304. London: John Murray, 2009
Hardback, £18.99

The bronze statue of Betjeman at St. Pancras marks his current status as the patron saint of an architectural heritage which, in the decades following the Second World War, was threatened by an apparently unstoppable modernist consensus. This collection of scripts for radio and television programmes, reinforced with some ancillary documents and letters, come from the years when Betjeman was waging war against the new barbarians.

The dominant tone of the collection is that of elegy, as in this moment from a 1969 television programme on seaside resorts of the south coast (p. 63):

The Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, built just west of Ventnor in 1868 – empty, now that they’ve found other cures for consumption. How many a pale face looked its last out of these windows? How many prayers were offered for sufferers? How many prayers were made by suffering patients? Echoes of weak coughs along deserted corridors. Empty.
"Other cures for consumption" is a curious phrase, when what is meant are cures which were actually effective, rather than the futile palliatives of the Victorian period. But the phrase is a revealing touch, for time and again in these scripts we find Betjeman both deploring the improvements as well as the desecrations of progress, and yet also relishing the desertion and deterioration they left in their wake. What would Betjeman have made of what has become his shrine, namely the restored St. Pancras? On the showing of these scripts, he preferred his Victorianism decayed, not refurbished.

Insofar as Betjeman had any abstract aesthetic principle, it was the one he invoked in a programme about Diss when trying to put his finger on what he particularly liked about the town (p. 194):

All this time, there's been something I haven't pointed out to you. It's the kind of thing you come to take for granted, strolling about in a town like Diss: the happy inconsequence of everything.
"Happy inconsequence" seems indeed to have been what Betjeman really liked, to the point where this resolute superficiality dominated the more sternly moral origins of many of his initial attitudes and loyalties. William Morris is clearly somewhere in Betjeman's intellectual background, quoted and praised at the beginning of a 1963 television programme on Malmesbury (pp. 265-66), and informing the pleasure he took in some of the detailing of the County Council offices of the West Riding in Wakefield (p. 277):
And now let me ask you to look at the electric light fittings. Better than those awful things like pig troughs that make the tea look like custard, aren't they? Trouble has been taken over the switch boxes. This isn't pomposity: it's delight in craftsmanship.
In Betjeman, it is the innocent delight which is uppermost, rather than any moralised sense of honest and dishonest artefacts or architecture, though he could sound that note when he chose. But these scripts ring most true not on those rare occasions when Betjeman tried to preach, but rather in his dramatising of the moment of discovery, as in this television programme of 1960 about the Weald of Kent (p. 136):
I'm always excited by a church I haven't seen before. What's it going to be like? That tower with its small windows, I should think, is Norman. Under these table tombs lie the bones of Georgian yeoman farmers. My goodness! - splendid windows in the nave: about 1450, from the look of them: very grand for so small a church.
However, for all that Betjeman encourages us not to probe beneath the surface of child-like pleasure, deeper questions cannot but arise, given the subjects upon which he is obliged to touch. In a letter of 23 August 1967 to the producer Peter Hunt on the subject of a possible Christmas film set in Canterbury, he came close to generalising what he liked about Englishness, whether it be English religion or English architecture (p. 140):
the joy of being Anglican is that definitions are left, in the English way, capable of various interpretations. Love only lives in liberty.
But what was liberty for Betjeman? An important part of it, of course, was his own freedom to be inconsequential. So, although he claimed to be a champion of liberty, he nevertheless crusaded against the modern invention which has given more common or garden freedom to more ordinary people than anything else, namely the motor car. He rarely passed up an opportunity to express his view that (p. 239) "traffic is the enemy":
Motor traffic. It smells nasty; it looks nasty. It's out of place in a human-scale village street. It's like a poisonous snake - a killer too. Not even a bit of nonsense like a nodding dog in the back window makes a motor car agreeable and driving a car makes the mildest man competitive and turns him into a fiend. [p. 75]

Burn them [cars] up! I mean, they're a frightful nuisance in Oxford. They shouldn’t be there. They ruin the place. The absolutely make it simply hideous, as they make every old town in England hideous. [p. 215]

Modern motor traffic is no friend to an old town. [p. 263]

Knowledgeable, enthusiastic, but also capricious and casually willing to subordinate human well-being to an aesthetic impression, these scripts shine a light on some of the less cuddly features of the man who became the nation's teddy-bear.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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Given the time we have had to reflect on the effects of urban renewal, suburban sprawl, and automobile-based transportation planning, it seems odd to denigrate any critic for opposition to motor traffic. Implying that Betjeman was an elitist for opposing the "freedom" afforded by automobiles is more than odd--it's the kind of argument you would expect from an auto-industry lobbyist.

Posted by: scott clark at January 5, 2010 05:37 PM
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