The Real John Betjeman

Sunday, April 23, 2000 by

Channel 4, not really feeling any responsibilities to suck up to establishment values, has always been able (especially in the Secret Lives series) to take a more ambivalent, more analytical view of old Establishment figures than the BBC tends to.

John Betjeman is the subject of a great love-hate relationship on my part – an admiration for his passion, his undeniable skill as a poet and his communication of his feelings, coupled with a deep antipathy for his inveterate conservatism, and the way his opinions (albeit in a simplified form) could be promoted as populist nostalgia by the Daily Mail, Telegraph and all the usual suspects, and used as a defence for their contempt for all modern architecture.

This was a good, solid C4 effort, albeit not as striking and iconoclastic as Saturday’s Guardian (which devoted the whole of page three to it) led us to believe. It needed more space and time to fully illustrate his complexities, and as an anthology of his life and achievements nothing will ever come close to 1983′s mercurial, although slightly rose-tinted, Time With Betjeman (which included lengthy extracts from just about every TV documentary and short film he ever made).

Gushing, embarrassing tributes from right-wing journalistic friends like Simon Jenkins and Auberon Waugh were irritating, but the scenes which reconstructed Betjeman’s sad childhood (boys at his prep school chanting “Betjeman’s a German spy”), the hazy films to accompany such poems as Hunter Trials, and the reflections on Betjeman’s melancholic last years, showed the main virtues of the main’s poetry (evocation of a certain type of “Englishness”, a sense of landscape, the loneliness of boarding-school childhood and the regret of old age). The much-talked-about revelation of his involvement as a press attaché for the British embassy in Dublin during World War II, when he came close to being killed by the IRA, did at least reveal the conviction with which Betjeman held his opinions (there have been many bumbling English gentlemen who use their facade to hide their ruthlessness of thought, and Betjeman in this case was definitely one of them). His support for Irish Premier Eamon de Valera (perceived as a traitor in Britain because of his strong neutrality following pressure from Churchill to join the Allies, and belief that Germany would win the war, leading to cartoons in the British press speculating that Ireland would join the German cause), and his incredibly brave letter to London saying that the only way to persuade the Irish into the war was to end partition and create a united Ireland, with his criticisms of Unionist leaders in the North, are thankfully very distant from the uncritical Unionist line still taken by most of the British establishment (compare Betjeman’s views in 1942 to a Telegraph editorial now …) His letters back to London actually reveal a profound understanding of the mentality that drove the IRA, and the similarities with the Nazi ideology of “purity”. Read now, they seem to grimly anticipate the actions of the IRA after 1969.

Extracts from his 1962 British Transport Film John Betjeman Goes By Train and 1956 Shell film Discovering Britain were welcome, and the latter had a musical intro which is the 1950s, somehow. But most interesting to me was the discussion of Betjeman’s disagreements with Nicolaus Pevsner – Betjeman the romantic idealist (whose vision of the Church of England had much less to do with Christianity than it had to do with a rose-tinted dream of rural English continuity) vs. Pevsner, with his much more rational and scientific view of architecture. I side with Pevsner here, and I don’t share Betjeman’s disdain (at the time) for the town planners of the early ’60s, for whom I have a deep retro-futurist affection.

Where has all that optimism gone? How have we gone from Telstar at number one to the tired revivalism of the last few years? Should Betjeman’s huge popularity and influence through TV in the ’60s and ’70s be implicated in this decline, and if so to what extent? My admiration for Betjeman is highly ambivalent, but it is admiration, nonetheless, and this programme, while nothing special, expressed it fairly well.


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