Saturday, 27 August 2011

More John Betjeman

A Subaltern's Love Song
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 summer-house, 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.


The characters in this poem are middle-middle - not out of the top drawer. A subaltern was a lowly young officer. In the 20s and 30s, Aldershot was full of new houses built in a self-consciously cottagey, olde-worlde style on sandy soil that was no use for farming. It was popular with army families, who laid out tennis courts and golf courses where there had been heath and woodland - and conifers.

A euonymus is a variegated shrub, and rather suburban - as are summer houses, verandahs and gin-and-lime. Joan's window is "low" and "leaded" in the cottage style, to go with the "oak" stairs. The pictures of Egypt were probably souvenirs of her father's postings abroad.

Her boyfriend can only afford a small Hillman car to drive down the wooded roads. Camberley may be built up - but there is enough of nature left to enchant the lovers who are quite happy to miss the dance in the Golf Club. Betjeman shows us that a minor officer wooing a tennis-playing girl in a banal setting can be as romantic as a troubadour.

No mention of lawns, vicars, crumpets or honey.

Betjeman's Phone for the Fish Knives, deconstructed.

Snobbery about Writers



I was collecting some clichés about writers, and realised that a lot of them are about class. So here's What to Say About:

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES "LM Montgomery portrayed rural Prince Edward Island as a folksy paradise where good triumphs and endings are happy, but her own life was far from ideal." (The Green Gables saga has plenty of tragedy, rural life is shown as hard, rural poverty is not romanticized. Maybe the later books are more syrupy.)

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED It’s about flannelled toffs at Oxford. (It's about how aristocratic families damage and neglect their children.)

AGATHA CHRISTIE She was “ladylike”. Her characters are all cardboard cutouts, two-dimensional stereotypes. "The latest biography shows us a fully rounded character." Her greatest mystery was her life. She was a snob who only wrote about aristocrats in country houses. (She wrote about hairdressers holidaying at Le Touquet, and typists chasing spies in Baghdad - among other things.)

GEORGE ORWELL June 09 – a BBC memo has turned up wondering if his voice would do for radio. Cue blethering about how he was an Old Etonian, had a posh accent, didn’t have a posh accent, disguised his posh accent, spoke in Mockney, spoke in “Duke of Windsor cockney”, had a “colonial manner”. We know he went to Eton, served in the Burmese police, was shot in the throat in the Spanish Civil War, admitted to toning down his accent when living as a tramp, had TB and smoked heavily; no recording of his voice survives. (His prose is often condemned as plodding and flat-footed – perhaps because he published a list of instructions on how to write that warn against being flowery.)

JOHN BETJEMAN Old-fashioned, snobbish, obsessed with the upper classes and an England of cricket matches, tea and crumpets, warm beer. (He was a precise observer of class markers and would never sink to cliches about crumpets.) “John Betjeman's soppy idylls about honey on the vicarage lawn.” Stephen Bayley Obs Mar 2 08 A Subaltern’s Love Song is B’s “fantasy idyll”.

"Light verse sells. Poetry doesn't have to be miserable, deeply intellectual, tortuously emotional, or clever. But more than that, he provided simple rhymes and rhythms. Betjeman is musical, and easy, and if you'd rather call it verse than poetry, that may say something about your own attitude to taste. When poetry disowns any of the properties of music, it must take care to offer something in its place. So if you want to sell a lot, Betjeman is a good model." (Guardian arts blog - you can rely on the socialist Guardian to be more snobbish than any other broadsheet.)

Easy metre? Simple rhymes? You try writing:

Pam, I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl,

Whizzing them over the net, full of the strength of five:
That Old Malvernian brother, you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,

Although he's playing for Woking,

Can't stand up

To your wonderful backhand drive.

"The image must have helped. He was one of the few poets whose face was known, because of his TV work; he looked like a teddy bear and sounded harmless and eccentric. In addition he was nothing like the stereotype of the drunk hell-raising poet... He seemed cosy; in many ways his poetry *was* cosy and unthreatening, though not always - he could be acute and painful on death and old age... And of course his poems were accessible, they didn't make people feel stupid and they yielded pleasure in return for very little work on the reader's part. We all like that sort of reading sometimes - maybe not Betjeman, because he's very English middle-class in a way that doesn't travel far outside those parameters, but we all have comfort reading we go back to when we don't specially want our brain stretching." (Guardian arts blog)

Betjeman epitomised everything that was wrong about postwar England - its nostalgia, conservatism, snobbery, provincialism... He is the poetic equivalent of a mediocre Devon cream tea in the rain. All the palaver about him strikes me as being a bunch of people congratulating themselves on being British and middle class. (Guardian arts blog)

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Classy Collecting

A friend writes: "What people like us are meant to say about Antiques Road Show is 'My dere, the greed that people exhibit, the way their eyes light up when they are told what they have got is valuable etc etc.' People like us are still supposed to be connoisseurs and collectors like people with stately homes who went on the Grand Tour."

Uppr-middle-class Sam and grand Caro despise programmes like Bargain Hunt/Flog It/The Antiques Roadshow for the above reasons, also because the people on it are common and collect the wrong kind of things. They talk sneeringly about people selling “pewter tankards” for £30.

Middle-class Jen and Eileen collect Moorcroft pottery, carved Bavarian bears and Copenhagen porcelain. Jen has inherited a set of metal goblets which she uses to serve wine to guests – then she puts them back in their presentation box.

Sam is now into Arts and Crafts – plain wooden furniture from the late 19th century. She has chucked out the Victoriana that used to clutter up her house and went so well with the flowery chintz chair-covers. Rusting advertising signs crow-barred off the side of a rustic shed are sooooo over. As are wash-stand sets (jug and basin).

The very trendy Upwards used to collect Whitefriars and Orefors glass (looks like a half-eaten boiled sweet) – but they cashed in recently and now buy distressed sets of pigeon-holes, metal chairs and school desks with the original authentic dust and ink-stains. Downmarket Mrs Definitely collects Doulton crinoline ladies, Bunnikins china and Swarowski crystal animals. The Queen collects Fabergé – little trees and animals made out of semi-precious stones. But she inherited a lot of it and I suppose she feels she can’t put it in the attic.

Why are posh accents described as “cut glass”? Cut glass is faceted like a diamond, and cut with a diamond wheel. If you can’t afford the real thing, you buy a moulded imitation. But when the real thing becomes cheaper and moves downmarket it is shunned by the middle classes. Also it’s too shiny for them. Stow Crats carry on using the cut glass bought by their 18th century ancestors.