To a rapt audience in The Link, last Friday evening, Richard Field gave chapter and verse (literally) on that other national treasure, the poet John Betjeman. We learned of the poet’s lifelong attachment to his teddy bear, Archibald; we learned of his heroic campaign to save England’s Victorian architecture from the big, swinging balls of 1960’s town planners – and we learned, best of all, of his poetry.
Often dismissed by the ‘literary snobs’ of academia as trivial or trite, Betjeman’s poems are, in Field’s impassioned view, savagely satirical, imbued with a romantic sense of memory and place – and, at times, unexpectedly moving. In ‘Devonshire Street’, Betjeman describes a man emerging into the street from a doctor’s surgery, clutching the x-ray of his terminal cancer; he makes silent appeal to ‘the merciless, hurrying Londoners’ as they pass him; and then
‘[His wife] puts her fingers in his, as, loving and silly
At long-past Kensington dances she used to do.
"It's cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly
And then we can catch a nineteen or twenty-two". ‘
“This is not trite!” roared Mr Field – and even I, a signed-up member of the ‘literary snobs’ brigade, had to agree. I shall return to Betjeman with due humility. For many of the girls in the audience, Mr Field’s lecture – delivered with all his trademark wit and panache – opened the door into another, fascinating world. Which is what education is all about, isn’t it?
- Andrew Macdonald-Brown