Monday, August 28, 2006

ALL THIS HOO-HAH ABOUT BETJEMAN

All this hoo-hah about Betjeman has thrown up some undesirable individuals. First there is AN Wilson, a Tory hack at the Evening Bastard, who has written an otiose biography of the former Poet Laureate. This biography features a recently discovered love letter from Betjeman which was supposed to disprove the notion that he was a sexually rather lethargic and disappointed man. It now turns out that the letter was a hoax, conjured up by Bevis Hillier, himself a former biographer of Betjeman (the first letters of each sentence read "A N W I L S O N I S A S H I T". Despite the good joke, Hillier seems like a bit of a prick too.

In fact, Betjeman himself comes across as something of a daisy, surrounded by a crowd of giant hogweeds, all leeching off of him. Only problem is, Betjeman was not much of a poet.

So, somewhat fed up with Dan Cruickshank and Rick Stein banging on about what John Betjeman means to them, I am going to introduce another villain onto the scene: a truly vile man who was, alas, the best British poet of the latter twentieth century. Larkin was a febrile racist, a misogynist, and a lover of pornography (which, personally, I don't think is so bad a trait); but the best of his poetry (and some of it is simply maudlin) deploys melodrama to great effect. He is no stranger to sentimentality, and his fixation with death is no more real or stoic than Betjeman's own flights of fancy. And I can't really say I buy any forecast of death - "the total emptiness of forever" - which denies the emptiness of the present.

But, whereas I find it difficult to read prose which I disagree with (Evelyn Waugh, for example, often makes me laugh, but I think he is a fairly lousy novelist, because he was so clearly a lousy man with lousy beliefs), the severance of form and content comes easier with poetry. I can read "Aubade" and refute its facile despondency, while still deeply appreciating its tone, which is grave, sombre and stately. Larkin reminds me of what Morrissey would be like if Moz was really miserable.



AUBADE

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse -
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

4 Comments:

Blogger Alexandra said...

I can't really comment on Betjeman (my father and grandmother are both slightly obsessed, but the obsession has yet to be inherited), but I feel like defending Evelyn Waugh.

He was by no means a /nice/ person, but I don't think he was as awful as everyone makes out. Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh points out that although he had his bad points, he wasn't as bad as everyone thinks. Having said that, Alexander Waugh is the grandson of Evelyn Waugh so perhaps it's a little biased.

And I'm an Evelyn Waugh obsessive who's read Brideshead Revisited approximately seventeen times, so I'm biased too. In fact, just ignore this whole message. I'm beginning to ramble.

My point, before I began digressing, was that even if Evelyn Waugh is a lousy man with lousy beliefs, in my opinion that doesn't make him a lousy novelist. But seeing as your post wasn't even about Evelyn Waugh in the first place, this is all irrelevant. Sorry.

3:46 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

It is not so much the fact that Waugh was or was not a nice person. I don't know whether he was or not, but even if he was not, that in itself wouldn't mean that his fiction was irrelevant.

But (and I am paraphrasing Orwell here) his political views severely impair his fiction. A novelist who is that Tory, that wrapped up in the preservation of the upper classes, that elitist, that dismissive of people who did not enjoy a private school education, cannot possibly write good fiction. Their ideas become enmeshed in their fiction.

An example that springs to mind is the scene in Decline and Fall with Mrs Beste-Chadwyne and "her nigger." Ostensibly, the scene is a send-up of racism, but it ends up being racist itself. Waugh begins by portraying the attitudes of Mrs Clutterbuck, Philbrick, Lady Circumference et al as being absurd, but he describes the scene in such detail and with such relish, that it becomes clear that Waugh really enjoys this sort of thing. And yes, I do mean Waugh himself, for the distasteful depictions of Chokey spill over into the narrative itself.

Some of Decline and Fall is funny (though not Vile Bodies, which is awful), but it ends up as nothing more than a rather indulgent and silly piece of throwaway fiction. I must confess I haven't read Brideshead Revisited. Can you persuade me why I should?

3:12 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

I suppose you're right - Waugh does come across as a snob and a racist in most of his books (Brideshead Revisited excepted...at least on the racist front), but perhaps I'm so shallow that it doesn't bother me. It's a matter of taste.

In spite of all of Waugh's faults, I find his style of writing so enjoyable and entertaining that I manage to block out the less appealing side of his character and political views.

I tended to skim over bits in Decline and Fall that came across as racist, and I tried to make allowances for the time it was written. I certainly don't suggest that you read Black Mischief which is probably his most racist novel, and in my opinion, the least enjoyable.

I liked Vile Bodies. Incredibly shallow and two dimensional, yes, but very entertaining if nothing else.

I've read seven or eight Waugh novels, but Brideshead Revisited is undoubtedly my favourite (with A Handful Of Dust a close second). It's the most mature and powerful of his novels, and it's the least superficial. Perhaps it's because the main theme is religion - and it's dealt with in a serious way, too. The characters are the least two-dimensional, and the relationships between the characters (Charles and Sebastian, Charles and Julia) are fascinating. As well as being genuinely funny in the earlier parts of the novel, it's also incredibly sad, and Sebastian's fall from grace is nothing short of tragic. If I was given the choice of owning only one book for the rest of my life it would be Brideshead, as I can read it again and again and enjoy it every time.

I don't know how much you know about it, but I could always give a brief outline of the plot if you like. And I'd recommend watching the TV series if you ever get a chance.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Newfred said...

Re Waugh, I bought Brideshead Revisited the other week but haven't read it yet.

Re Betjeman and Larkin I completely agree. Betjeman was nothing special, but Larkin was, and there is something unique about the meeting of rhythm, vocabulary and cadence which gives Larkin a directness which is profoundly human, despite his own misanthropy. I think it is this which makes Larkin great.

12:51 AM  

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