The Diary

June 13, 2014 7:16 pm

The Diary: AN Wilson

The author on his wife’s birthday treat and his BBC tribute to conservationist and poet John Betjeman

As a birthday treat, my wife likes exploring coastal areas in easy reach of London. Last year we went to the Isle of Grain on the Medway estuary (Queen Victoria’s favoured departure post for trips to Germany). The contrasts are what make it memorable – the little medieval church, contrasting with the great looming oil-powered power station. The desolate sea, and the warmth of the cornfields. A little inland is the churchyard where Pip had his encounter with the convict Magwitch in Great Expectations. There is a heartbreaking row of babies’ graves, which Dickens pretends were Pip’s siblings – “five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long”.

This year, less adventurous, we went to Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. The great expanse of sand makes it a classic Victorian seaside resort, and the beach huts, some spanking new, some crumbly and paint-peely, stand three or four-deep on the dunes. The pier has known better days but my wife, daughter and a nice group of friends enjoyed themselves whizzing about in the dodgems. I can’t enjoy dodgems, being a truly appalling driver in real life.

Though I’d hoped that Walton-on-the-Naze would be bursting with life – the 21st-century equivalent of a canvas by William Powell Frith – it was a WG Sebald experience. We appeared to be the only people there.

. . .

An illustration by Nick Oliver depicting Queen Victoria, John Betjeman and Daniel Katz on dodgem cars©Nick Oliver

When sculpture expert Daniel Katz closed his gallery in Old Bond Street, there were other dealers who imagined that he was drawing in his horns or taking life a little more quietly. But in May he opened an even grander gallery, occupying every floor of Number Six Hill Street, just off Berkeley Square. (See our profile “Only the very best of its kind”). When I looked around, every room contained a treasure that made you gasp: here was an Egyptian stone eagle dating from hundreds of years before Christ, cunningly juxtaposed beside Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. There is Rodin’s sculpture for his “Gates of Hell”, depicting Ugolino, mouth agape and starving, poised to take a bite out of his starving sons. Here are two stupendous Sickerts. There is a Turner. Katz’s eclectic taste takes in everything. This collection really is one of the sights of London.

. . .

It is 30 years since the death of John Betjeman, and the BBC has asked me to do a documentary film as a tribute. Each time that I return to Betjeman, I wonder whether disillusionment will set in. Will it emerge that I think his campaigns to save our architectural heritage were somehow a bit quaint or precious? No, I do not find that. I had a walk round Bedford Park in west London – which would have been demolished had he not put his weight behind the plan to save it. I attended a service at the church where he worshipped in the last years of his life, which would have been pulled down and rebuilt as flats without his protests. These visits only redoubled my admiration for Betjeman the conservationist.

As for the poetry – it gets better and better the more you recite it. Betjeman was so completely a poet that everything he did was a sort of poem. His television programmes are poems. His vision of England, and its architectural heritage, was not just based on scholarship – though he had plenty of that. It was passionately felt. It was inspired by poetic rage.

When we went to film at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, the curate told us that a previous vicar – the one who wanted to pull down the church and to build flats – decided to discontinue the early Communion service. “Why is that?” asked his churchwarden. “I like coming to the early service.”

“I know you were at the service this morning,” said the vicar. “But apart from you, there were only five others – and is it worth keeping a service going for just five elderly people? I’ve no idea who they were, incidentally.”

“I can tell you,” said the churchwarden. “They were the Poet Laureate [Betjeman], his friend Lady Elizabeth Cavendish; the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie; Lord Cadogan, patron of the living; and Princess Margaret.”

. . .

Some years ago I wrote a biography of poet and polemicist Hilaire Belloc. I don’t know why his grandchildren asked me, hon sec of the wishy-washy society, to chronicle their far from wishy-washy forebear but I loved doing so. Now, in quick succession this month, the last of that generation of Bellocs have died: first Lucy Jebb, married to Belloc’s grandson, the architect Philip (who died in 1995); and four days later the former headmaster of Downside, Anthony Jebb – who was confusingly renamed Father Philip by the arcane rules of the Benedictine order.

Many of my Roman Catholic friends, such as Auberon Waugh, hated Downside and found that there was something creepy about being beaten by men dressed in monastic robes. This I can understand, though in those days both state schools and privateused corporal punishment – odious as the practice is – on pupils.

Father Philip told me that once, just at the very moment when he was about to cane a boy, the telephone rang. It was his charming younger brother Julian, who was a brilliant TV producer. After they had chatted for a while, Julian said, “Ant, what are you up to?”

An awkward pause.

“You’re not about to hit a child, are you?”

“As a matter of fact, Julian, I was.”

“Well, don’t,” he said – and hung up. The poor boy who had been awaiting punishment was surprised to be told, “I think you’d better go.”

Out went the boy but two minutes later there was a sheepish knock on the door. “Sir, before that phone call you were going to beat me. What made you change your mind?”

“My brother did.”

“Is there any way I could express my gratitude to him?” asked the boy.

“Well,” replied the Benedictine monk. “I think you’d find that a packet of Gauloises would not come amiss.”

AN Wilson’s biography of Queen Victoria will be published in September. ‘Betjemanland’, his TV tribute to John Betjeman, will be broadcast on BBC4 this summer

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