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Come friendly bombs and rain on this po-faced collection of John Betjeman’s ‘barrel scrapings’

Harvest Bells: New And Uncollected Poems

John Betjeman, edited by Kevin J Gardner

Bloomsbury Continuum £16.99

Rating:

Never let an academic near a poem. He will take years to study it, and then get it wrong.

Kevin J Gardner, billed as ‘Professor of English at Baylor University, USA’, is the editor of this book of poems by the late John Betjeman – poems that Betjeman himself thought too sub-standard to republish.

In his introduction, Gardner boasts that the job has taken him over ten years. By my calculation, this means he had to pick fewer than eight Betjeman poems a year, and write a brief paragraph on each of them. This is hardly the most back-breaking work, even for a Professor of English. Nevertheless, he describes it as ‘an extraordinarily difficult task’, adding that ‘by far the most onerous decision’ was ‘what to include and exclude’. What else did he imagine that an editor’s job consists of?

John Betjeman in 1959. All Betjeman’s verse has a strong sense of place, and the place is usually in England

John Betjeman in 1959. All Betjeman’s verse has a strong sense of place, and the place is usually in England

In 1982, when John Betjeman was approached about an earlier volume of uncollected poems, he suggested, in his self-deprecatory way, using ‘Barrel Scrapings’ as a title. So this one might be better titled ‘Barrel Scrapings of Barrel Scrapings’. In his introduction, Professor Gardner does his level best to big it up, claiming it provides not only ‘new and essential insight into his poetic imagination’ but also ‘a significantly richer understanding of his imagination’. But this is so much guff: most of the poems are makeshift and way below his usual standard, and some just plain bad. I suspect their publication would have embarrassed their creator, who was always a consummate craftsman.

‘The guiding editorial principle in selecting unpublished poems was quality and completeness,’ writes Gardner. But many of the poems he has selected were written on the back of envelopes for social occasions, or one-off events, and were never intended for posterity. Though his reputation is sturdy enough to withstand it, their publication does Betjeman a disservice.

Quite a few of them could have been written by the preposterous Scottish bard William McGonagall. Take these lines, from a long poem about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

At Bristol next I built them something new –

An iron steamship with propeller screw,

The biggest in the world, my famed Great Britain.

Bound for New York, the Irish coast she hit on

Readers who look up this poem in the notes at the back will discover that it was originally written as background commentary for a TV documentary. To my mind, Betjeman’s documentaries were the most delightful ever made, but commentaries such as this were designed to accompany film, just as a pop lyric is designed to accompany music. They were never meant to stand alone.

Being ephemeral, a number of the poems are impossible to understand without looking up their notes at the back, which are unnumbered, and so take a while to locate. Sometimes, you find yourself wishing that Professor Gardner had put the relevant information on the same page as the poem. For instance, we learn in the notes that the poem The Electrification Of Lambourne End was subtitled ‘A Poem in the Manner of the Rev George Crabbe’. Once you know this, the poem reads very differently. So why did Gardner not place the subtitle where it was intended?

Similarly, I read a sonnet in the book as homosexual and autobiographical – ‘My own, my darling sunkissed supple boy/If this is sinful, what is wrong with sin?’ But a note at the back reveals that Betjeman was commissioned to compose it for a novel set in India. Far from being a homosexual confession, it is a pastiche of a love poem from a white woman to her young Indian lover. It would have been better to know this before, rather than after, reading it.

Other notes are irritatingly incomplete. A poem called Charterhouse School Song is full of gay inferences, and ends ‘But Sherborne, surely Sherborne/Was the proper school for me’. Why Charterhouse? Why Sherborne? The editor does not say, merely listing the date it was written, and so on.

All Betjeman’s verse has a strong sense of place, and the place is usually in England. Might a British editor have picked up more of the references? A poem called The Wykehamist At Home ends:

Jolly old Winchester! jolly old New College!

Cream of our fine middle classes!

By cheerful unbendings in soccer and social clubs

We can get on with the masses.

This is clearly a satire on the pretensions of Betjeman’s contemporaries who attended Winchester – intellectual socialists such as Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Crossman and Douglas Jay – but Gardner doesn’t seem to realise this, merely saying Wikipedia-ish stuff, like ‘Former pupils of Winchester College are known as Old Wykehamists after the school’s founder, William of Wykeham, who also founded New College, Oxford’.

Professor Gardner’s ignorance has led him into one particularly embarrassing trap. One of the last poems, about the traitor Sir Anthony Blunt, is titled Lines On The Unmasking Of The Surveyor Of The Queen’s Pictures. It begins:

Poor old Bluntie! So they got him,

‘Mole Revealed’ they say ‘at last’.

On a bleak November morning,

What an echo from the past!

Old Marlburian, I recall him,

In his flannel bags and hat

Wandering by the River Talbot

Sometimes straining at a gnat.

Within minutes of the book coming out, journalists realised that Professor Gardner had made a big mistake. This poem is not by Betjeman at all. In fact, it is a wicked spoof of Betjeman, written by his friend Richard Ingrams, and printed in Private Eye, not in 1969, as Gardner says, but in 1979.

Buried away at his Christian University in Waco, Texas, Gardner obviously didn’t realise that Private Eye is a satirical magazine, even after working ten years on the project. I looked up that particular issue and found, on page 13, a full-page advertisement for a ‘Sir Anthony Blunt Commemorative Plate’. This is followed on page 14 by a transcript of ‘That Blunt Lunch – in Full’, in which ‘thanks to the Gnome “Superbugger” Surveillance Device’ they are able to reprint a conversation between Blunt and the bigwigs at The Times newspaper.

The bogus Betjeman poem is printed on the opposite page, and credited to ‘The Poet Laureate Sir Jawn Bargeperson’. Poor old Professor Gardner! He even suggests that Betjeman has made a mistake in thinking that the river in Marlborough is the Talbot, not the Kennet. Little does he realise that at the time ‘Talbot’ was Private Eye’s joke name for Sir Jimmy Goldsmith’s shortlived Now! magazine. Immediately underneath the spoof Betjeman poem in that edition is a spoof news story about angry Cumbrian hillfarmers protesting about ‘a multi-million pound Talbot disposal plant’.

IT’S A FACT

Betjeman was sacked from his job as a film reviewer for the London Evening Standard for being too enthusiastic about the movies.

Ten years’ research, and the po-faced Professor Gardner still couldn’t spot a joke in a magazine dedicated to jokes! Not only that, but in his unusually detailed note in the back he writes of the poem’s biblical allusions, and goes on to waffle, in standard academic pseudery, that ‘these allusions reveal that Betjeman’s tone is far from flippant, though his nonchalance partly masks the charges of hypocrisy and triviality. In this sense, Betjeman replicates the unmasking of Blunt in the exposure of his own subconscious feelings, which lurk behind a typical Betjmanesque facade of moral and aesthetic superficiality’.

It all makes me wonder if some of the other poems printed in this slim volume might not, in fact, be spoofs. There is one called Sweets And Cake that seems too coarse and overtly homosexual to be Betjeman, and is as likely to be by his gay chums Maurice Bowra or Tom Driberg.

Most of the other poems in the book must be by Betjeman, but they are so below standard that they call to mind the tale of Picasso, confronted with one of his old paintings by an art dealer who was hoping to have it authenticated.

‘It’s a fake,’ said Picasso.

‘But it bears your signature!’ protested the art dealer.

‘It’s a fake by me,’ came Picasso’s reply.

 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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