A generous, even admiring, biography of the late English poet laureate (1906–84) known for his sing-songy verse (some call it doggerel), his BBC broadcasts, his devotion to the Church of England (despite his unconventional private life) and his determination to save England’s notable older buildings from the wrecking ball.
The prolific Wilson—novelist (My Name Is Legion, 2005, etc.), biographer (Jesus: A Life, 1992, etc.), social historian (After the Victorians, 2005, etc.)—found himself in the news recently when it was revealed that he included in the UK edition of Betjeman a bogus letter (planted by a rival?); the first letters of the sentences in the middle of the letter combine to spell A.N. Wilson is a shit. Betjeman himself would have laughed at the puckishness—but disagreed with the nasty sentiment, for no one could ask for more sympathetic treatment than Wilson has given the poet. Wilson argues that about 30 of Betjeman’s 200 or so published poems “actually hit their mark.” And the author casts a most compassionate light on Betjeman’s intimate relationships. He was married in the 1930s (to Penelope Chetwode) and sired two children, but he also had numerous affairs, including one of some 30 years’ duration with Elizabeth Cavendish. The pudgy poet teetered back and forth between wife and mistress like a tawdry teddy bear. Betjeman did have a remarkably charmed life. One of his secondary-school teachers was T.S. Eliot; his tutor at Oxford was C.S. Lewis (they disliked each other intensely). His little boat eventually floated into some of the most exclusive social waterways—he attended the wedding of Princess Margaret, hung out with celebrities of all sorts. Wilson properly credits Betjeman for his pioneering work with the BBC (early on, he saw and exploited the potential of television) and with the fledgling architectural preservationist movement. Absent here is something essential: a chronology of the poet’s life with a list of his published titles.
Occasionally displays the author’s characteristic acerbity—but generous to a fault.