The reigning authority on all things Betjemaniac squeezes his assiduous three-volume biography about the late poet laureate into one really big paperback.
The sometimes naughty, sometimes haughty Sir John Betjeman (1906–84) was the very archetype of a Bright Young Thing, one of those madcap eccentrics larking about London all those years ago between the wars. World War II service found him in Dublin, Bath and Blenheim Palace. He gained postwar recognition at home and abroad as a critic of architecture, books and film, as well as a poet, building his popularity with appearances on the Beeb’s radio and telly. He sought to save heaps of Victorian landmarks from destruction and railed against ugly lampposts. But Jolly Sir John, it appears, was not much of a father. Married to horse-loving Penelope, he maintained a lengthy relationship, discretely described by Hillier (Young Betjeman, 2004, etc.), with a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Osbert Lancaster and Dame Edna Everage numbered among his friends, but perhaps the poet’s dearest companion was Archie, the teddy bear who was nestled in his arms on the morning he died. Poet laureate for 12 years, Betjeman was buried in Westminster Abbey. Hillier provides a few samples of his poesy, verse with little vice that, like Ogden Nash’s or W.S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, is best read aloud. The rhymes, in strict meter, contain japes, jokes, pranks, puns, sense and nonsense—as well as momentary, startling tugs at the heart. This Betjeman encyclopedia, though, isn’t about the poetry; it’s about the poet. Ornamented with such lingo as “clunch” and “festinant,” his life story is as British as a tea room in old Drayneflete, and bloody well done too.
An exemplary biography evoking, in classic form, lives and times just gone.