Sizable first installment of an authorized three-volume biography deals with the poet’s origins, education, and larking about with Britain’s Bright Young Things between the world wars.
Former London Times editor Hillier, who has spent 25 years researching the life of John Betjeman (1906–1984), here covers the period from the poet’s Islington childhood through his marriage in 1933 to Penelope Chetwode, a fierce field-marshal’s daughter whose voice “had an almost ventriloquial timbre, like that of a Punch-and-Judy man using his swazzle.” Primary education, begun at the sadistic Dragon School, finished with Betjeman boarding at Marlborough. He never took a degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, but managed to take part in the theatricals, literary publications, and homosexual posing that characterized the time and place. Joining the aesthetes with vigor, Betjeman produced antic prose, poetry, and pranks while chumming around with Auden, Osbert Lancaster, Kenneth Clark, the Mitford sisters. For these classic British eccentrics in the making, “businessman” was the ultimate pejorative, so when obliged to support himself, young John wrote for The Architectural Review, acted as private secretary for a superannuated politician, and became a lively schoolmaster, accompanied everywhere by his familiar teddy bear, Archibald. Betjeman’s story is sure to entertain chronically anglophilic Yanks, who will adore even such walk-ons as “Green the college lamplighter, known as ‘Bloater Bill,’ and Emma Higgins of ‘C’ House wardrobe, who retired in 1923 after 62 years’ service.” They’ll also have a jolly good time with the copious servings of Betjeman’s poetry, written when such stuff often rhymed and always scanned. It may smack of Wordsworth and the Victorians but just as frequently it recalls Odgen Nash. Withal, the juvenile doggerel, the adult verse, and the generous extracts from correspondence consistently amuse. Future volumes will tell if Betjeman the radio and TV raconteur or Betjeman, Versificator Regis, pleases as much.
Another nicely flowing entry in the big biography stream, as British as Eric Blore. (32 pp. b&w photos)