Monday, 20 July 2009

John Betjeman

It's been busy the last few days but Sunday afternoon was free so I sat peacefully in the conservatory listening to heavy rain on the roof, reading stories from my Father Brown anthology by G.K. Chesterton and essays from John Betjeman in Trains and Buttered Toast. The latter I actually finished and counts for my Support your local library challenge being hosted by J.Kaye and also for my Non-fiction five challenge being hosted by Trish's Reading Nook.

John Betjeman is most famous in the UK as a poet. Born in 1906, he died in 1984 and was in fact one of our Poet Laureates, but I've no idea how well known he is outside the UK. He was also a famous radio broadcaster and Trains and Buttered Toast is a selection of broadcasts made in the 1930s and 40s. They read like essays to be honest and I have to admit that I found some more interesting than others. Betjeman was well known for his dislike of progress that came in the form of the ruination of the English countryside, ie. modern suburban sprawl. He loved Victorian architecture, old picturesque villages, the south west of England and, in particular, the county of Cornwall. All of these things are well represented in these broadcast essays.

In Coming Home, or England Revisited he talks about the things he misses about England when he's abroad. Railway journeys, Women's Institutes, places such as Norfolk, Ludlow, Salisbury and so on. He wrote this in 1943 when he was the UK's press attaché in Dublin but nevertheless I still keenly identified with his feelings, as I feel that way way when I'm not here too! Not so much when I'm in the USA but every time we used to go to France I would be dying to get home and would actually cry when Plymouth came into view from the ferry. I have a feeling Betjeman would have understood.

In Port Isaac he talks about one of his favourite Cornish fishing villages - he had a home near there until he died I believe. I don't know this village well, been there a couple of times but chiefly know it from the TV series, 'Doc Martin'. It really is a beautiful village and Betjeman writes very atmospherically about it:

Not until you round a corner do you see any sign of Port Isaac at all. Then you see it all - huddled in a steep valley, a cove at the end of a combe, roofs and roofs tumbling down either steep hillside in a race for shelter from the south-west gales. A freshwater stream pours brown and cold along the valley, under slate bridges, between old houses, under the road and out into the little harbour.

The trade of Port Isaac is really fishing. The promise of a dark night after a shoal of pilchards had been sighted; the sound of rowlocks and splashing of oars in harbour water, then boarding the fishing boat from the dinghy; the outside roar of the sea; the dark cliffs fading in twilight and dropping away as we move out to open sea; letting down the nets and drifting - those were the times! Unless, like me, you were a shocking sailor and sick all night and thanking God for dawn light and the nearing cliff of Varley Head as we made for home and harbour.

He did a series called 'Book Talk' apparently and one of those, entitled Yesterday's Fiction deals with the joys of forgotten Edwardian fiction. I found this one very interesting as he was talking in 1944 and already many authors were out of fashion. Anthony Hope was a big favourite of Betjeman's... writer of The Prisoner of Zenda and other 'Ruritanian' novels. He also recommended The King's Mirror, Tristram of Blevit and The Dolly Dialogues none of which I've ever heard of. Other authors he recommends: George Gissing, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose McCaulay, E.F. Benson, Rider Haggard, 'Q' and many more. Two books: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childs, a spy yarn which I'm pretty sure I saw in Waterstones recently, and Red Pottage by Mary Chalmondeley which Virago book I actually own, so will have to get that out to read.

A batch of five essays was entitled 'Christian Soldiers' and encompassed famous saints and Christians - my favourite of those was Sabine Baring-Gould. I have to admit this was mainly due to reading The Moor, one of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books, in which Sabine (pronounced Saybin) Baring-Gould was one of the main characters. This real life vicar of the small hamlet of Lew Trenchard on Dartmoor was a prolific author and also a collector of Devon folk tunes which he toured the county collecting with clergyman F.W Bussell...

Bussell himself is so equisite that Baring-Gould tells the story of how he specially had orchids sent from London to match his clothes. (Bussell lived with his mother in a house Baring-Gould built and sang falsetto at village concerts to the amusement of the village and the distress of his mother.) 'We visited Huccaby' says Baring-Gould, 'to interview old Sally Satterly, who knew a number of songs. But she was busy, she had to do her washing. Mr. Bussell seated himself, inconsiderately, on the copper for the boiling, till she lighted the fire under it and drove him off. I had to run after her as she went about her work, dotting down her words, while Bussell followed, pencil and music book in hand, transcribing her notes'.

It was fascinating to read more about this 'squarson' (mix of squire and parson in the village), who was quite content with his lot in the tiny Devon hamlet, with his wife and fourteen children, and never wished to be more than he was.

So, did I love this book? Well, parts of it. Some of it didn't appeal much, he does bang on endlessly about progress and though he had a point, it does get a bit wearing. But when he's talking about his love of England, of Cornish villages, books that he loves or train journeys that no longer exist then he really is interesting and beautifully atmospheric in his writing. One to get from the library in my opinion.

Photo from


DesLily said...

I would see where you might enjoy things he had to say of the moor and of cornwall..sometimes I think books like this are most interesting to those living in those areas and can make all sorts of connections with things he says rather than someone who has never been there..?

Cath said...

You're absolutely right, Pat, and the local connection was one of the reasons I wanted to read this book. I'm not sure many other people would be interested... maybe if they were a fan of his poetry or particularly into nostalgia? The Sabine Baring-Gould section was just a nice little extra though. :-)

Val said...

Interesting intro to his essays Thanks!
I've only read some of his poetry, I did enjoy "Two Middle-aged Ladies in Andalusia" by Penelope Chetwode who was his wife ..I think??? doubting my brain/memory here lol

Cath said...

Val: I just tried to check out the book you mentioned but Amazon has no info and no copy. PC is not even listed on FantasticFiction so it's a bit of a mystery. I'll certainly keep an eye out in charity shops though. I've read a little bit of his poetry too, the one where he fancies the teenage tennis player is rather good.

Book Psmith said...

This is a new to me author. I can relate to his sentiments about progress, although more often not I am conflicted about it. I love that photo of him...he just looks so happy.

Val said...

Joan Hunter Dunn...?

Cath said...

Book Psmith: I can relate to his sentiments about progress too, and ugly buildings and so forth, especially living here where tourism is king and there's a danger of ruining what people are coming to see. It's not an easy subject.

If memory serves that photo of him was taken from a documentary made in 2006 for his centenary, but of course taken from a much older piece of film. I remember the very last bit where he turned to the camera and laughed, because it was such a happy shot.

Val: That's the one! I was hoping it was on his website - there are others there but not that one sadly.

Val said...

It's here Cath

I found this article about the real Miss Hunter dunn who was the inspiration for the poem when I was searching for the poem
it's funny what you find

Nan said...

Oh, what a wonderful review. Really just excellent, Cath. I loved reading about Baring-Gould in The Moor. He also wrote hymns which you probably already know. I got out my hymnal, and the most famous is 'Now The Day is Over' #172 in the 1940 hymnal. Tom and I love Doc Martin and the second series is just coming out over here next month. Hooray. That village is so beautiful.

Cath said...

Val: thanks for the link to the poem! I've copied and pasted it and might put it up here when I get a moment. My grandaughter is staying until Sunday so time is a bit short. The Guardian article wouldn't show up for some reason, though it did apologise nicely for the inconvenience...

Nan: thanks for your kind words about my review. Yes, I knew he wrote hymns. There were two well known ones mentioned in the essay but I can't remember what they were, which is annoying.

I found I'd got one of his ghost stories, in an anthology, the other day, so I must give that a read next week. Betjeman recommended some of his novels too but I forgot to make a note of which ones unfortunately.

Enjoy the second series of Doc Martin. Sadly, as with many good things, they seem to have stopped making it. Such a shame as we loved it too. I got your e.mail and will reply asap. Our grandaughter is here until Sunday so not a lot of spare time at the moment.

nicola said...

I only know a couple of Betjeman's poems but your post has made me want to read more. I stopped at St Pancras station last month and the statue of Betjeman there is just stunning.

Cath said...

Nicola: I've only seen a photo of that statue but it looks wonderful. Yes, I'm curious to read some more of his poetry too now.