JOHN BETJEMAN : ANGRY YOUNG MAN
1st December, 2020
The enduring image of John Betjeman is that of the genial and cuddly national treasure, the most popular English poet since Kipling, the twinkly-eyed chat-show regular and presenter of nostalgic TV documentaries. Anyone who has read much of his poetry – especially his earlier works – or any of the biographies will know that there was a great deal more to Betjeman than that. The latest Betjeman book, Jonathan Smith’s recently published Being Betjeman(n), a highly original combination of autobiography and dramatised biography, explores much of what might be called the ‘dark side’ of Betjeman: his troubled relationship with his father, sadly mirrored in his relationship with his own son, his tangled love life and disastrous marriage, his insecurity and frustration, his bouts of self-loathing depression, his capacity for cruelty. Betjeman was a complex character, and he played many roles in the course of his long life. The triumphant final act tends to obscure the rest.
One aspect of his life story that tends to get overlooked is his career as an angry young man of the 1930s. The young John Betjeman was a mischievous provocateur, determined to draw attention to himself. In 1933, as an architectural journalist on the make, he published an extraordinary little book called Ghastly Good Taste, or a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture. (The ‘Fall’ was epitomised by just the kind of architecture that in later life Betjeman came to love and celebrate.) The first edition is something of a collector’s item, but happily it was reissued in 1970 and several times since. The 1970 edition is actually a better buy than the original, as it contains Betjeman’s marvellously witty and frank Introduction, titled An Aesthete’s Apologia, which begins thus:
‘I wrote this book 38 years ago. I was 26, in love, and about to be married. When Anthony Blond said he would like to reprint it, I thought I had better read it, and he kindly sent me a copy. I am appalled by its sententiousness, arrogance and the sweeping generalisations in which it abounds. The best things about it were the fancy cover, which I designed myself [a typographical extravaganza featuring all manner of barbarous Victorian typefaces] and the Street of Taste, or the March of English Art Down the Ages, a marvellous 9ft-long pull-out, drawn by Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh.‘
Betjeman then treats us to an entertaining 'aesthetic autobiography', tracing the formation of his taste from boyhood up to the date when Ghastly Good Taste was published. This seems to him, he says, the only possible way to explain the state of mind that led him 'to dash out this book in something like a white-hot fury' (though it has to be said that it is far more stylish and elegant than those words suggest). The ‘aesthetic autobiography’ contains, among other felicities, one of those apparently innocent but erotically nuanced utterances that were always a Betjeman speciality: ‘I think a sense of architecture in the round comes with puberty. It is then that one begins to appreciate proportion and shape and lines of construction…’ Well, quite.
Ghastly Good Taste begins with Betjeman’s preface (to the 1933 edition), in which the author declares himself indebted to ‘Mr C.S. Lewis of Oxford, whose jolly personality and encouragement of the author in his youth has remained an unfading memory for the author’s declining years’. In fact, the far from jolly Lewis showed undisguised contempt for the young Betjeman, regarding him as an ‘idle prig’ and effete socialite, and doing his bit to ensure Betjeman’s ignominious (if well deserved) sending down from Oxford.
After an opening chapter written in the form of an address to 'One of the Landed Gentry', Betjeman begins the second chapter with this helpful note to the reader: 'The first chapter of this book was in the nature of an apostrophe. Those who have understood it need go no further, for the succeeding chapters are but elaborations of the opening theme; those who did not understand it need go no further, since the elaborations will not help them. There is little reason for my continuing the rest of the book beyond pleasing my publisher, and indulging my own pleasure in writing and gaining that money which I cannot come by honestly.' If you do persevere, however – it’s a short book and extremely readable – you will be rewarded by a colourful ragbag of strong opinions, digressions and quotations long and short, some from architectural historians, but most from miscellaneous literature and letters, including a very funny correspondence between one Lord Ongley and his achingly fashionable architect, Batty Langley.
Betjeman even slips in a poem of his own, in the course of apostrophising ‘Glorious Lincolnshire, where – except for the gaiety of Woodhall Spa, that half-timbered Camberley among unexpected fir trees – the Victorian life goes on, unhampered by a convenient railway system and not “picturesque” enough for the main-road motorist’. Having given a brief description of the fictional parish of ‘Loathly-Crumpet with Muckerby, four miles East of Horncastle’ and its church, he announces ‘Here is a poem describing a Victorian church’ and treats us to ‘The church’s restoration/In 1883…’ (to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’). The 1970 edition also has some amusing footnotes. A reference to ‘hard logic’ is footnoted ‘About which I didn’t then know anything, and still know nothing’. Mention of ‘the sham classicism of Norman Shaw’ inspires the note ‘Who, I now realise, was our greatest architect since Wren, if not greater’.
It is possible, though Betjeman doesn't point this out, to glean the argument of the book – such as it is – from the running titles at the top of every right-hand page (another deliberately old-fashioned feature). Taken sequentially, they read:
'The curse of the expert, the blind man in the street, the smug architect – and his awfully jolly assistants – but what is architecture? Oh! for a faith to work for wholly! The architecture of faith is characterised by logic and fearlessness, is liable to misinterpretation. The loss of faith and the growth of pedantry resulted in an incongruity of style properly called Jacobethan. The fine old English renaissance, this was hard and reasonable and fit for autocrats who will have no nonsense in freak styles from abroad but, instead, honest buildings at once impressive, dignified and original and, withal, Protestant. O natural and unaffected spacious days of the Regency, with your modest terraces, sound sense, no style being all styles and deceit being no style. Then, England knew how to build for the Hanoverians, for the Empire and the towns, and not only for the autocrat. The pride of the purse and the incipient snobbery of aristocrat and plutocrat caused a travesty of Regency styles and an uneducated, machine-made Gothic. But good old vulgarity is preferable to “refeenment” – from which the great William Morris. In unity is strength.'
The young Betjeman, for all his go-ahead airs, is clearly nostalgic for the medieval Age of Faith when everything made sense. He dislikes the ‘pedantry’ of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, finds things improving markedly under the Georgians, delights in Regency architecture, and dismisses much of what comes after, especially the more snobbish and ‘refeened’ elements of Victorian style.
Betjeman always preferred ‘honest vulgarity’ to pretension – an element of his taste that never changed, though elsewhere (as with Norman Shaw) it might have turned through a full 180 degrees.
In his Introduction, Betjeman describes Ghastly Good Taste as the product of the author’s 'muddled state – wanting to be up to date but really preferring all centuries to my own'. Happily he never tried to be ‘up to date’ again.
Being Betjeman(n) by Jonathan Smith is published by Galileo.
Ghastly Good Taste is available in various incarnations.
Nigel Andrew’s The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death is available direct from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org), price £12 or on Amazon.
Nigel is a regular and established blogger here.