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Saturday, 18 September 2010

My Heroes (30): John Betjeman

Sir John Betjeman's statue at St Pancras station, London
John Betjeman was knighted in 1969 and made British Poet Laureate, when Cecil Day-Lewis died in 1972, until his own death in 1984. His image was always that of an avuncular cuddly eccentric, slightly bumbling and bewildered and he did nothing to discourage that image of himself.
He was often not highly regarded by critics but was always very popular with the public.
Isn't that frequently the case? His subject matter was rooted in the here and now rather than classical subjects. He was an admirer of architecture and nature.
He famously popularised suburbia as 'Metroland', named after the new suburbs that appeared around London between the wars due to the expansion of the Metropolitan Railway.
Here is one of my personal favourites of his poems.
I really enjoy the evocation of 1930's English middle-class society and I should say, for those under 40 or not British, that Hillman, Rover & Austin were makes of automobile.
I have not the faintest idea what 'her father's euonymus' was!

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 summerhouse, 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! 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.

This is from BBC News, April 2007:
The woman who inspired one of Sir John Betjeman's most famous poems has died at the age of 92.
Joan Jackson was immortalised in print as Miss J Hunter Dunn in Sir John's 1941 poem, A Subaltern's Love Song.
Mrs Jackson, who first met Sir John while working at the Ministry of Information in the 1930s, died at a London nursing home last week.
Her son, Edward, said: "She never said she was proud to be his muse but she did not consider it a joke."
John Betjeman 1906-1984
He added: "She just said that John was a nice man."
Joan Jackson the 'muse' for Betjeman's Joan Hunter Dunn

Alas the whole poem was Betjeman's fantasy from afar. I recall him appearing on a chat show as a cheerful old man like a grandfather everyone would love to have and he was asked if he had any regrets in life: " Yes", he replied "I never had enough sex."


joanne fox said...

I do like that statue of him, holding his hat. It must be hard to capture someone's character in a statue, but whoever sculpted that one has really done justice to their subject.

Alicia said...

Thank you for this introduction to someone unknown to me. I love that statue.

Euonymous is a popular landscaping shrub, known for having glossy leaves.

bazza said...

joanne f: The statue is about eight feet high and you will often see tourists posing in the same way for a photo next to it. It is an unusual and appealing piece.

Aicia: I hope you enjoyed the poem as well as the statue!
Thanks for the botanical info; now I know why it was 'shining'.

Sir Tom Eagerly said...

Ah! Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. The very mention of that name makes Sir Tom come over all unnecessary.
As for Sir John regretting he never had enough sex.... don't tell Lady Eagerly, but neither did I.

bazza said...

Sir Tom: I suppose you were around when the poem was first published (1941) and so a bit too soon for the swinging sixties generation. I can't imagine you ever being 'unnecessary'!

Rob said...

I remember him saying that he never had had enough sex.

Also, maybe in that interview, he was asked if his poetry was superficial. He replied along the lines of "yes, thank goodness."

Incidentally, I have a book he wrote about Oxford. I am looking forward to reading it.

bazza said...

Hi Rob. The Oxford book by Betjeman is probably 'An Oxford Chest'. He was a student at Oxford and his autobiography, 'Summoned by Bells', written in verse, probably deals with it too.
Regards from Bazza (thankfully superficial!)

THE SNEE said...

Hi Bazza, Once again I've learned things that I never even knew to ask about. I'm glad to see that Alicia is all over the euonymous question(hard to spell that one), Great fun to learn about Betjeman(another spelling challenge)! You know after reading that poem, I'm feeling an urge to write a rhyming tale myself. Enjoy the sun, look through the fog and I'll look forward to your next blog. Wow, that was..well...I tried!

bazza said...

Hello Snee. You're a poet and you don't know it! Incidentally, regarding the spelling of his name, when he was a schoolboy during the First World War it was spelt Betjemann but the second n was dropped to make it seem less Germanic. In fact it was of Dutch origin.

klahanie said...

Hello bazza,
Another in-depth and highly informative posting.
Although I did have some knowledge of this gentleman; your fascinating info adds that extra dimension.
Thanks for sharing this and thank you for submitting one of his very clever poems.
With respect, Gary.

bazza said...

Gary: If I say the pleasure was mine, I mean it! That poem is worthy of the highest recognition as far as I'm concerned.

Kelly said...

I have absolutely no idea who this man is but I do love that poem. While reading it, it takes your imagination for quite a ride. At least for me, it did. What better heroes to have than poets! For me, poets have always been the ones who inspire and accurately describe the human spirit.

That would be funny if someone put a plastic penis on that statue. Calling Sir Tom right now to get on that. Take care, bazza.

bazza said...

Kelly: What a lovely comment. While reading the first paragraph I was thinking "Wow, Kelly can have deep insight when he is serious for a while!"
Then came the sucker-punch. Your second paragraph made me laugh out loud. God, I hope Sir Tom doesn't read it - he just might take action!

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