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Rhyming road to salvation

by
31 May 2024

Rod Garner celebrates the legacy of Sir John Betjeman, who died 40 years ago this month

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John Betjeman (1906-84), in 1961: “a complex of contradictions”

John Betjeman (1906-84), in 1961: “a complex of contradictions”

EVEN before his death on 19 May 1984, the poet John Betjeman appeared to some critics as a throwback to the 19th century. For some, he was a writer of exceedingly modest talents, prone to tiresome doggerel and a risible nostalgia for an England that no longer existed. Others were irked by his sermonising concern for the alleged destruction of our urban heritage, or the parlous state of church buildings that, increasingly, comparatively few ever attended.

Some who claimed to know him better suggested that Betjeman’s public persona of a dotty enthusiast, clutching his precious teddy bear and sporting his trademark hat and mac, concealed a reservoir of fear, envy, and guilt, fuelled by a precarious, if spoilt, childhood, academic failure at Oxford (despite repeated attempts to meet examination requirements), and marital infidelity.

Such personal attacks — in some instances, unfair and unfounded — failed to acknowledge Betjeman’s talent and gifts. If, towards the end of his life, when his muse and health were failing, he did pen some embarrassing lines (“Blackbirds in City churchyards hail the dawn Charles and Diana on your wedding morn” come to mind), this is still the same poet championed by Philip Larkin, an acerbic versifier and critic who notably lacked sentimentality: “Betjeman’s poems would be something I should want to take with me if I were a soldier leaving England. I can’t think of any other poet who has preserved so much of what I should want to remember.”

Betjeman was a man of formidable energy. While his poetry was a source of simple pleasure to millions of ordinary readers and listeners, he himself was a genuine friend to countless people, and a generous and indefatigable supporter of conservation who battled vigilantly against “institutionalised vandalism and the triumph of stupidity and greed over beauty”. His work as a journalist, radio and television writer, and broadcaster, as well as poet, made a significant contribution to modern culture, leading to a CBE, a knighthood, and, in 1972, the Poet Laureateship (ironically, when his best work was already done).

He was a complex of contradictions: a retiring poet with a deep religious sensibility who was rather taken by Swinging London and its frothy celebrities; an outwardly accessible and often boisterous figure, who relied on champagne and anti-depressants to stave off an abiding melancholy; an aesthete, who could be harsh in his estimation of the nation’s propensity for ugliness and fecklessness — litter, pollution, and a general lack of civility or interest in matters spiritual — and who was yet tender and revealing in poems that charted harvest festivals, love affairs in tea shops, and lavender sachets scenting the linen cupboard.

 

A FAITHFUL adherent of the Church of England, Betjeman was never slow to satirise or challenge its hypocrisies, vanities, and failings. Frequently troubled by doubts, he sought solace in the loveliness of its rituals and traditions, and the history of its parish churches, where he “went to hear the old story told anew”.

In such places, symbolised by worship, the sound of bells, and the importance of communities hallowed by time, faithfulness, and continuity, he would share in the eucharist that momentarily delivered him from an abiding fear of death, instilled in him by the cruel and sadistic nanny who had forcibly fed him as a child, locked him in cupboards, and spoken of the awful reality of “endlessness . . . and God’s dread will”.

To face the “dreaded lonely journey into Eternity”, he clung to the sacraments and the practice of prayer even as unbelief assailed him:

 

“I am the Resurrection and the Life”:

Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.

 

Nanny had done her job well: “I caught her terror then. I have it still.”

 

BETJEMAN’s deep attachment to the community spirit of the Church, and its preservation of sacred spaces in which souls, love, language, and civility might flourish, was not due simply to the understandable need for consolation, which he desperately sought. It also reflected his belief that, through Christian architecture, art, music, and liturgy, a sense of a nation’s living history and faith could be preserved, along with the practice of social virtue, even in the face of indifference and unbelief:

 

And though for church we may not seem to care,

It’s deeply part of us. Thank God it’s there.

 

Such concern was evident not only in his poetrym but also in his many radio and television broadcasts. In his 1974 BBC film A Passion for Churches, his carefully crafted words sought to reach an audience that “would include atheists and agnostics; Christians who had let their faith slip; people who loved the Church of England as part of English life, and its churches as tabernacles of preserved history, without subscribing to its doctrines”.

Far from being a cultural and religious dinosaur, as his detractors had implied, Betjeman now appears surprisingly prescient, as we read of the emergence of “cultural Christianity”, and prominent atheists and secularists openly admit their debt to a religion that they had previously disparaged or denied. Richard Dawkins, Tom Holland, Jordan Peterson, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have all testified to the value of faith as a source of wisdom and meaning.

In his new and harrowing memoir, Knife, Salman Rushdie relives the murderous attempt on his life which brought him very close to death, and his subsequent miraculous survival. Reconsidering what he believes after such traumatic and life-changing events, Rushdie acknowledges how much he has been influenced by the Christian world of beautiful buildings, their music and melodies, hymns and voices, and the depth of St Paul’s letters and the Psalms. In each instance, “they have made their way deep into my being,” even if he remains unable to accept the transcendent truths to which they point.

Betjeman would, I think, welcome such disclosures, but with an important caveat. For him, Christianity always represented more than a useful lifeboat when he was drowning, and certainly more than an aesthetic fix, or a creative myth for public intellectuals belatedly seeking to make more sense of their lives.

It was, rather, an arduous but legitimate way of struggle, epitomised by the lives of estimable saints and scholars: a path in which faith, doubt, and “intermittent hope” were properly grounded in the Church as “a living focus of love — God’s love and ours for him”.

 

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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