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Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)Almost the last poet of the 20th century whom I shall discuss may seem a most unusual choice. He certainly would not qualify as a genius, but he was not only a most entertaining writer, he also had a delightful sense of nostalgia. This I think serves to make his vision of the process of age and change well worth recording.

His subject matter was essentially England, and he was easily the most popular Poet Laureate in that country since Tennyson. His evocation of long lost country pastimes, if not quite as preposterous as that of P G Wodehouse, is unreal but compelling. There is no way, having read of her, that one can forget Joan Hunter Dunn of A Subaltern’s Love Song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

I suppose one reason I rate Betjeman so highly is his evocation of Oxford. No other poet since Arnold has written anything that so well captures the spirit of the place, but whereas Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy was a mythical figure, Betjeman’s dons are all too real, and the manner in which time passes by them, in OXFORD: SUDDEN ILLNESS AT THE BUS-STOP,  is both absurd and moving

At the time of evening when cars run sweetly,
Syringas blossom by Oxford gates.
In her evening velvet with a rose pinned neatly
By the distant bus-stop a don’s wife waits.

From that wide bedroom with its two branched lighting
Over her looking-glass, up or down,
When sugar was short and the world was fighting
She first appeared in that velvet gown.

What forks since then have been slammed in places?
What peas turned out from how many a tin?
From plate-glass windows how many faces
Have watched professors come hobbling in?

Too much, too many! so fetch the doctor,
This dress has grown such a heavier load
Since Jack was only a Junior Proctor,
And rents were lower in Rawlinson Road

A darker picture of age occurs in the Song of a Nightclub Proprietess, which conjures up images of Evelyn Waugh, but takes one further in time to a desolation that seems the epitome of the vanity of human wishes in the modern context

I walked into the nightclub in the morning,

 there was Kummel on the handle of the door,

 the ashtrays were unemptied,

 The cleaning unattempted,

 And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor.

 

 I pulled aside the thick magenta curtains

 So Regency, so Regency, my dear

 And a host of little spiders

 Ran a race across the ciders

 To a box of baby ‘pollies by the beer.

 

Oh sun upon the summergoing bypass

 Where ev’rything is speeding to the sea,

 And wonder beyond wonder

 that here where lorries thunder

 The sun should ever percolate to me.

 

 When Boris used to call in his Sedanca,

 When Teddy took me down to his estate,

 When my nose excited passions,

 And my clothes were in the fashion,

 When my beaux were never cross if I was late,

 

 There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches

 There was fun enough for far into the night;

 But I’m dying now and done for,

 What on earth was all the fun for?

 I am ill and old and terrified and tight

Though I had read Betjeman on and off previously, I became a serious convert to his sonorous excesses only when, in the seventies, I came across recordings of his reading his poetry to the music of Scott Joplin. Apart from the better known poems, Betjeman also read a bizarre piece about the first man to swim the English Channel. Though it was in theory meant to commemorate his death, in 1940, both the verse which imagines his ghost swimming back to his roots, and Betjeman’s lugubrious reading of it, establishing a dogged determination that is both comic and endearing. He entitled this A Shropshire Lad, which was superbly ironic since that was the title of A E Housman’s first book of poetry with its evocations of handsome young country youths

The gas was on in the Institute,
The flare was up in the gym,
A man was running a mineral line,
A lass was singing a hymn,
When Captain Webb the Dawley man,
Captain Webb from Dawley,
Came swimming along the old canal
That carried the bricks to Lawley,
Swimming along, swimming along,
Swimming along from Severn,
And paying a call at Dawley Bank
While swimming along to Heaven.

The sun shone low on the railway line
And over the bricks and stacks,
And in at the upstairs windows
Of the Dawley houses’ backs,
When we saw the ghost of Captain Webb,
Webb in a water sheeting,
Come dripping along in a bathing dress
To the Saturday evening meeting.
Dripping along, dripping along,
To the Congregational Hall;
Dripping and still he rose over the sill
And faded away in a wall.

There wasn’t a man in Oakengates
That hadn’t got hold of the tale,
And over the valley in Ironbridge,
And round by Coalbrookdale,
How Captain Webb the Dawley man,
Captain Webb from Dawley,
Rose rigid and dead from the old canal
That carried the bricks to Lawley,
Rigid and dead, rigid and dead,
To the Saturday congregation,
And paying a call at Dawley Bank
On his way to his destination.

Though I have a predilection for the absurd, Betjeman was also a devotee of church architecture and other traditional aspects of the English countryside. An Edwardian Sunday combines this passion with acid critiques of industrial England

High dormers are rising
So sharp and surprising,
And ponticum edges
The driveways of gravel;
Stone houses from ledges
Look down on ravines.
The vision can travel
From gable to gable,
Italianate mansion
And turretted stable,
A sylvan expansion
So varied and jolly
Where laurel and holly
Commingle their greens.

Serene on a Sunday
The sun glitters hotly
O’er mills that on Monday
With engines will hum.
By tramway excursion
To Dore and to Totley
In search of diversion
The millworkers come;
But in our arboreta
The sounds are discreeter
Of shoes upon stone –
The worshippers wending
To welcoming chapel,
Companioned or lone;
And over a pew there
See loveliness lean,
As Eve shows her apple
Through rich bombazine;
What love is born new there
In blushing eighteen!

Your prospects will please her,
The iron-king’s daughter,
Up here on Broomhill;
Strange Hallamshire, County
Of dearth and of bounty,
Of brown tumbling water
And furnace and mill.
Your own Ebenezer
Looks down from his height
On back street and alley
And chemical valley
Laid out in the light;
On ugly and pretty
Where industry thrives
In this hill-shadowed city

Finally, his celebration of Christmas ends, after the usual satirical descriptions of different classes of humans and the emotions they conjure up at Christmas, with a simple affirmation of the wonder of the Christmas story – though preceded with a characteristic conditional –

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Ceylon Today 27 July 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-69042-news-detail-john-betjeman.html

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