I’ve got a lot of time for John Betjeman. I know his poetry isn’t critically acclaimed, but I’ve liked it since I was a teenager. In 1974 I bought Betjeman’s Banana Blush on vinyl, which has the poet reading his music to the musical accompaniment of Jim Parker, and can remember taking it into an A-level English Literature lesson to listen to.
It wasn’t really the fashionable thing to be playing in 1974. To put it into context some other albums I bought new at the time were: Apostrophe(‘) and Roxy & Elsewhere by Frank Zappa, The Confession of Doctor Dream by Kevin Ayers, Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt, Stormbringer by Deep Purple, The End by Nico, Hall of the Mountain Grill by Hawkwind, and Dandruff by Ivor Cutler (although that was also a bit uncool).
My normal apparel at that time would probably have been 18-inch flares, tie-dye vest, an Afghan coat and clogs with inches-thick soles; listening to Jim Parker & John Betjeman a stripy blazer and straw boater would have been more appropriate. I subsequently bought the other three albums as they were released – Late Flowering Love, ‘Varsity Rag and Betjeman’s Britain.
He edited the Shell Guides, a series which is very collectable today, and featured in a lot of films for television about architecture, towns, the countryside, and railways.
And I have just finished what was my book for reading in bed when I’m too tired to concentrate well. Trains and Buttered Toast: Selected Radio Talks (John Murray, 2006, ISBN 0719561264). It’s a collection of his radio broadcasts for the BBC Home Service, and each takes about five or ten minutes to read (it’s best to read aloud in your head in Betjeman’s voice to get the full effect). He does come across as a bit of a prig and a bit of a snob in places (but this was the 1930s and 40s) – but the rare occurrence of this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the pieces. I’m in agreement with a lot of what he says, for example about inappropriate urban developments, and closure of rural railways. They could probably generate enough electricity to power a small town by attaching a turbine to his coffin.
Reading this book has spurred me to buy the four Parker/Betjeman titles on CD, but disappointingly the M&S website has no stripy blazer.
P.S. I’ve just found an interesting article about the Betjeman records from The Guardian. And I forgot to mention that John Betjeman was originally a bit dismissive of Betjeman’s Banana Blush, describing it at the time as ‘a vulgar pop-song record I have made’ and ‘a lapse of taste’, and he thought the title ‘frightful’. However, when he heard the resulting recording he must have liked it well enough to go back in the recording studio another three more times.