Friday 14 December 2007

The Betjeman Birthday Party & Churching

On 4 September I attended one of the most magical evenings of my life: Sir John Betjeman's birthday party, an annual celebration of the Betjeman Society of which I have been a member for about 7 years now, it was actually one of the first literary societies I joined but had never been to any of its events. Contrary to my expectation I found everybody so welcoming, it was held at St John's Church, Waterloo.

It was such a delight and a truly intense pleasure like a tickle to the senses to see so many Betjeman enthusiasts and there pervaded such an atmosphere of love and conviviality. I was introduced to some of the members and some of them introduced themselves to me, one lady said that Betjeman introduced himself to her as a writer when they met which is funny since he always believed himself first and foremost to be a poet - This reminds one of Auden's description of himself as a medieval historian to avoid people's odd looks.[1] I introduced myself to Bevis Hillier before he was greeted by one of the ladies and excused himself to me, he was whisked off and introduced to a beautiful young lady who I later learnt was Imogen (Betjeman's granddaughter), it was extremely kind of him to come back to me later and introduce me to Kenneth Pinnock. Bevis asked if I had seen the Murray publishing house at Albemarle Street and I said I hadn't. We talked about teaching; he remarked that he had noticed a striking resemblance between Imogen and her grandmother, Penelope: the same mouth and style of speaking. He related many an anecdote and spoke about his views on education and how he believes (and rightly so) that children in schools these days still ought to be taught the classics and mentioned a new book he was writing about what can/cannot be termed art: Can one distinguish between a Rembrandt and a haphazard sketch by a novice? Art cannot be defined because it is subjective but one knows it. He has been compiling it for about 30 years and said that Penelope had seen most of it, it comes out in about 2010 because he has found a publisher who has given him 2 years in which to write it. Kenneth said that he suspected a shade of Ghastly Good Taste when Bevis said that he had defined and given detailed examples of bad art (Betjeman did the same for architecture in this early book). During the course of the conversation somebody walked up to him to confirm the story of the Betjemans' cafĂ© King Alfred's Kitchen in which Betjeman had put a sign up in the window saying 'Burnt cakes a speciality’.

Another lady walked up to me and asked if I'd like to join them, by then people had started making their way to the chairs so we sat down and she introduced me to her partner. A lady called Mary asked if she'd like to come over and sit with her (Mary's son is into Betjeman, whom I met, because he is interested in architecture, apparently studied it at Oxford) but she said "No thanks, I've got 2 lovely gentleman here to keep me company. What more could I want?"

The man who interviewed Imogen said that he had thought of asking Jonathan Stedhall to wheel him about in a wheelchair (he was temporarily on crutches) but that if someone had asked if he'd had any regrets he wouldn't have known what to answer. Jonathan had wheeled around an old Betjeman riddled with Parkinson's in his last TV program in 1983 called Time with Betjeman. When asked if he had any regrets he replied "I should have had more sex".  He was testing the microphone and Imogen put her face close to his and asked in a loud voice if she could be heard now. He replied "If you come any closer I won't care whether they can hear or not".

Imogen answered many questions about Sir John and shared some of her memories, she made Bevis do an impression of her grandmother when he related an incident to her that he had also related to me and Kenneth. She said she was 16 when Betjeman died and at that age one doesn't realise the full extent of the illness of someone as ill as he was, nevertheless she remembers herself and members of the family reading to him, she only saw him about twice a year. She remembers a glass paperweight he had with a tarantula in it which he used to scare them with as kids, she remembered being found out in school as Betjeman's granddaughter when they read ‘Norfolk’ and she remembered what it might have been like for her mother when Penelope put them under a strict disciplinarian regime when they visited, with kids of Her own she realised how irritating it could be when told by one's mother how to bring them up (like forbidding fish fingers). She said that Betjeman would have been fascinated had he lived to see his centenary so well celebrated – "He'd probably have turned up tonight dressed as a priest. He'd have loved being loved".  In the end she recited her favourite poem 'Hunter Trials' though she said she also loved ‘Trebetherick’ because she had grown up doing all the things he mentions in it. She said that in 'Hunter Trials' he used all the words associated with horses and horse-riding and that Betjeman must have heard Penelope use them because she did all the time and she must have read or talked to him about horses or India. She mentioned an incident from when he invited some guests round that Penelope (who always spoke her mind when she spoke) didn't warm to and he said "If you were a horse she would have married you by now".  She said he didn't really know how to behave with his grandchildren and there's a photo of Penelope propping his arm up around them at Christmas! His mistress would be seen leaving quietly when Penelope arrived. The whole talk held the audience in a trance-like grip.

Afterwards when I had filled my plate with numerous kinds of sandwiches Bevis Hillier said to me "Do come and join our inner circle of friends" and I was invited to sit opposite him. Next to him was seated Lady Mary Wilson to whom he introduced me as a teacher and poet, what a huge honour it was to be in such company. No doubt it was one of the grandest evenings of my life, to my left was seated a rather grand old lady from a dying class of aristocrats and landed gentry who reminded me of Edith Sitwell. She had lovely beady eyes like Lady Thatcher's are now and exchanged stories of Oxford Dons and lords and ladies and country estates with Bevis. Lady Wilson (widow of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson) mentioned how great and befitting the recently unveiled statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square looked. She also praised his speech and said that he had spent 3 decades in prison and then upon his release decided to make peace and reconciliation with his jailors – We all nodded when she said "That was Christianity in action; rare in today's world".  Lady Wilson is an extraordinarily accomplished, vibrant and brilliant poet, one of the best ones writing in this age and I remembered her verse with flashbacks ...
How like a man to choose a crowded train
to say that we could never meet again
Bevis mentioned Denis Healey and asked Kenneth whether he thought Dennis was getting rather a bit "prolific in the eyebrow department".  It was hilarious as Healey's eyebrows are huge and bushy. The lady to my right continuously conversing about Oxford dons, lords, ladies, and their country retreats (virtually oblivious of my presence and that of the others) this time with Mary's son (whom I mentioned earlier). Bevis asked Kenneth his opinion of his trick on A. N. Wilson – I just laughed not daring to speak but they both said it was amazing nobody noticed and Bevis himself hadn't expected he’d fall for it either since it was not postmarked south of France but UK. I pointed out to him that he had mentioned Betjeman referring to Stepney Cemetery when it is known as Tower Hamlets Cemetery – He very kindly said that it required a footnote in future editions. It was either Betjeman's mistake or (as Mary's son pointed out to me earlier) Tower Hamlets borough was not in existence at the time so Betjeman might have been right but I can't find any other evidence of it ever having been called Stepney Cemetery. Betjeman was familiar with Highgate and Kensal Green (Bevis said he was driving him somewhere once and they went past Kensal Green and Betjeman pointed it out to him), but not with Stepney, as far as I am aware. I was glad Bevis recognised the reference and said that yes he had mentioned that in the chapter about Betjeman's trip to Southend with Simon Jenkins. He mentioned Ann Widecombe, former Conservative MP and her recent series of TV programs on various social issues, one of them being prostitution – He said "What does she know about prostitution?" Meaning what experience could she possibly have anyway? Imogen praised Bevis' Betjeman biography (which runs to 3 bulky volumes) – Bevis is a treasure-house of anecdotes and he related a well-known one of Lady Nancy Astor at a dinner addressing Winston Churchill and saying "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your tea." And he replied "Nancy, if I were your husband I'd drink it". Imogen came and joined us at the table for a bit, she saw me and acknowledged my presence with a nod and a winsome gesture. Bevis handed me his card before he left (which he also gave to Imogen) and invited me to visit him. I introduced myself to Imogen before leaving and said how magical the evening had been and thanked her for her marvelous answers. She said that she had been a bit nervous because it was her first time being asked questions like that.  A line of homeless people were sleeping or sitting along the church wall as I walked out.

On 25 I visited St Andrew, Holborn. A church has existed at this site since the tenth century, upon a little hill above the river Fleet. The church survived the great fire but was still rebuilt by Wren who retained its fifteenth century tower. Brunel's parents married here in 1799 and in 1808 Charles Lamb and his sister Mary were best man and bridesmaid at William Hazlitt's wedding, Disraeli was christened here. London City Churches by Paul Middleton and Leigh Hatts and London's City Churches (in the great Metro guides which are packed with brilliant information for enthusiasts were it not for the lack of thorough research and glaring mistakes in them all) by Stephen Millar both state wrongly – The Metro guide probably getting it from Middleton's book – That the poet Chatterton was buried here but recently (in 2002) reburied in Manor Park Cemetery along with 3000 others to make way for a crypt cafeteria! In fact he was buried in the now extant burial ground for paupers/non-conformists in Shoe Lane so it is just as well! I also revisited the bland and bleak church of St Giles' in the Fields to take a picture of Chapman's tombstone. I didn't know he was here when I first visited some years ago.

Both churches were empty and dimly lit so that the pews contrasted brilliantly with the glowing splendour of both the altars.


Kenneth Pinnock passed away on 31 October in Beltinge - Kent.  He was born on 15 May 1919 in Canterbury and educated at the Simon Langston grammar School for boys from 1928 - 1939, then went on to study History at Oriel College, Oxford.  He served as the Educational Editor at John Murray from 1953 - 1984.  He was married to Joyce Muggleton and fathered 4 children with her - Christine (a headteacher), Trevor (harpsichordist and conductor), Melvin (artist and blacksmith) who died aged 36, and Anna (a film set decorator).  I have written about my 2 very pleasant meetings with him at the annual Betjeman Birthday Party.  He promised to tell me the rest of a joke he had forgotten! His book A Canterbury Childhood is due to be published later this year.

[20 January 2009].

[1] Newsweek, 29th January 1968.  54.