Posted by Richard on  UTC 2015-10-15 08:07

I saw a television documentary recently about John Betjeman (1906-1984) by A.N. Wilson, Return to Betjemanland– yes, the now old Young Fogey himself – which regurgitated the usual themes: Betjeman's sense of social inferiority, his love of women, his fight against the architectural wreckers of the time and so on. There were many quotations from Betjeman's autobiographical work Summoned by Bells and here and there a very few lines from a very few examples of the other poetry. The documentary was fair, but television nowadays keeps off poetry, probably for good reason. The last poetry-based documentary about Betjeman I know of, A Poet in London, was made in 1959, but that was a different age of television, an age when it was still really just radio with pictures.

Betjeman was a campaigner, a thoughtful social critic and a delightful person with whom, I am sure, you would always enjoy having dinner. But he was first and foremost a poet. That had been his goal since childhood. He described himself as a poet and was Poet Laureate for the last twelve years of his life. However, because he is such an interesting and amusing figure his poetry gets neglected.

Here's an example of a poem – a 'minor' poem, if you like – that is rarely quoted, but which is, in my opinion, a quiet, understated masterpiece. As usual with Betjeman we must not stop at the amusing lasciviousness, in this case the thought of the thousand wet female bodies behind frail partitions in Camden. When we read the poem carefully we note that not a word is out of place, not a word can be changed without loss. Every line carries weight and contributes to the whole.

The foundation of the poem is a masterly evocation of place and time. On this foundation Betjeman places allusions to issues of social structure and social change during the 20th century – mere hints, but enough to give the thoughtful reader much to think about. A full discussion of all these delicate hints would fill many pages. I'll spare you that and just point out that it takes a real master to write that essay in 20 short lines.

The annotations here are not intended to 'explain' the poem, they are just stones thrown across your path to slow down your reading: pause for thought, indeed!.

Business Girls  
From the geyser ventilators cheap, poor quality
Autumn winds are blowing down autumn, wind, chill
On a thousand business women common, status irony
Having baths in Camden Town. place
Waste pipes chuckle into runnels, place
Steam’s escaping here and there, chill
Morning trains through Camden cutting place
Shake the Crescent and the Square. place
Early nip of changeful autumn, autumn, chill
Dahlias glimpsed through garden doors, autumn, place
At the back precarious bathrooms place, cheap housing
Jutting out from upper floors; place
And behind their frail partitions poor quality
Business women lie and soak,
Seeing through the draughty skylight wind, chill, poor quality
Flying clouds and railway smoke. autumn, wind, place
Rest you there, poor unbelov’d ones, social comment
Lap your loneliness in heat. social comment
All too soon the tiny breakfast, social comment
Trolley-bus and windy street! social comment, autumn, wind

The text is from: John Betjeman, Collected Poems, John Murray, London 1988. p 181. Text© John Betjeman 1988, 1954.

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