This photo is taken from the book John Betjeman Letters Volume Two: 1951 to 1984. Edited and introduced by Candida Lycett Green, his daughter. The caption reads: JB (left) arriving at Leeds station, December 1963, to open an exhibition on the church architect Temple Moore. With him is his friend, Dumdad’s dad, editor of the Yorkshire Post.
Candida Lycett Green, who died on 19th August aged 71, was the daughter of Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984. I never met Candida although she sounded a lot of fun but it reminded me of a piece I wrote on my old Blogger blog, which is now closed to the public. So, by popular demand (me), here is the Betjers blogpost I wrote on Thursday 10th May 2007 in an occasional series I ran entitled Pause for Poetry:
Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), apart from being a great and popular poet, had a wonderful sense of fun.
When he came to stay with us in rural Kent, he would invariably bring huge boxes of fireworks, even at the height of summer.
The countryside of apple orchards and quiet meadows would be jolted out of its tranquillity by rockets streaking across the sky and Roman candles spewing out their incandescent colours and Catherine wheels whirling and cracking.
One hot summer on a lazy Sunday afternoon Betjeman, seeing how bored and lethargic we kids were, suddenly decided to do something about it.
After a quick phone call, he grabbed my father’s car keys and said, “Come on, kiddiz, let’s go for a swim!”
My brother and sister and I bundled into the car and off we sped for a Wacky Races experience.
Betjeman drove in an idiosyncratic way and fast, oh so very fast. He crashed through the gears as the car was flung through the corners of the tiny country lanes; he used the clutch as a brake.
We were screaming with excitement and tinges of fear.
Betjeman proposed a game. Every time we saw someone walking by the road we should all shout “Hello Mrs. Fisher!” (or Mr. As the case might be) and wave frantically as though we knew the person. He said that Mrs. Fisher at high-speed could sound like any number of names and he claimed that one or two people would actually think they knew us and wave back.
And he was right when, after whizzing past four or five puzzled citizens, a Mrs. Fisher did indeed wave back at us.
On the side of the road, we spotted a table laden with punnets of strawberries for sale. In those halcyon days, farmers would leave the stall unattended, with a note saying how much a punnet cost and a box to put the money in. Happy honest days; today the farmer would return to find the strawberries, the money AND the table gone.
Betjeman delighted us when after buying two punnets he mumbled “Hmm, a bit mean with the portions” and grabbed a few strawberries from another punnet and added them to ours. How exhilarating that an adult should act so.
Somehow, we arrived safely at his millionaire friend’s mansion. His friend wasn’t there but a butler led us to the swimming pool.
We spent a couple of hours splashing about, interrupted only when tea was wheeled out by another servant of the house.
Betjeman, a teddy bear of a man and in his 60s then, even had a dip himself. (Talking of bears, he always brought his own much-loved and much-hugged teddy, Archibald, when he came to stay).
And then it was home in our chariot of cheer and fear.
Betjeman was recognised wherever he went and people felt drawn to him. He was always charming and attentive even to the boring and boorish.
He loved to visit local churches as did my father; us kids found it all rather dull. On one occasion, Betjeman, seeing us fidgeting, turned to the star-struck vicar and said, “Can we look at your bells?”
The vicar duly obliged but was taken aback when Betjeman asked if we could ring them.
“Um,” stammered the vicar, “it’s not really the time to peal the bells, um, it might confuse the villagers.”
Betjeman gave him a forlorn look and then looked at us.
The vicar was won over.
Soon we wannabe campanologists were hanging onto the bell ropes for our dear lives as the huge bells bonged throughout the countryside.
What a wonderful man in whom the child never died.
So to his poems. There are so many. Ricky Gervais, the star of The Office, re-introduced the poem Slough to millions (“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”), but I have chosen my favourite:
A Subaltern’s Love-Song
Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won.
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won.
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.
Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.
The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.
On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.
By roads ‘not adopted,’ by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car-park the dance has begun.
Oh! full Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!
Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us, the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice,
And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.