Betjeman described his debut album as a 'vulgar pop song record' but he was wrong: these tales of unconsumated love and mislaid virtue have extraordinary emotional power
Back in April 1974, I picked up my brother's copy of New Musical Express (as it was then known) for my weekly dose of rock'n'roll polemic and happened across an interview with Sir John Betjeman. Betjeman didn't look much like a rock star but he kept his larder stocked with scotch, was generous with it, and interviewer Andrew Tyler admitted he was as drunk as a boiled owl by the time he staggered out of Betjeman's house.
I was vaguely aware of Betjeman before he starred in the NME's pages. He was one of the few poets stocked in my local bookshop and I'd seen him a few times on television: a large, untidy, avuncular man who always looked as though he'd had at least a couple of sherries. Mostly he talked about leaky country houses and the gothic majesty of railway station architecture, the "lovely bits of old England" that were, according to Sir John, under grave threat from the uncaring future.
According to the NME, Betjeman was about to release his first LP at the grand old age of 67. It was released on the very peculiar Charisma label, home to the likes of Monty Python, Van der Graaf Generator and Vivian Stanshall. The album was entitled Banana Blush. I ordered it, played it and instantly fell in love with it.
The idea for Banana Blush came from producer Hugh Murphy, who would later work on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. Murphy paired up Betjeman with composer Jim Parker. Initially, the poet laureate was sceptical about the project, protesting that he possessed the kind of singing voice that could bring up bodies from the murky depths of the Thames. "Just imagine you're Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady," he was told.
Betjeman was never the most reliable critic when it came to his own work. Upon completion, he dismissed Banana Blush as a "vulgar pop song record, a serious lapse in taste".
It was neither. I first heard it shortly before my 13th birthday and it sounded strange but exquisite to my ears. Frankly, I'd never heard anything like it in my life.
It opens with Indoor Games Near Newbury, the clippity-clop of frisky tea-room jazz as the backdrop to Betjeman's flashback, here concerning young, unconsummated love played out in a dark cupboard during a kids' Christmas party. A love "that lay too deep for kissing". I was hooked. To a temperate music hall knees-up The Flight from Bootle tells of a Liverpool lady mislaying her virtue in a seedy Piccadilly Circus hotel. A euphoric blast of brass introduces A Shropshire Lad, the story of Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, who finally perished in Niagara Falls – although Betjeman has him snuff it in an English canal.
At 13, I wept hot tears as I listened to Child Ill, moaning brass providing the accompaniment to Betjeman's memory of his father on his deathbed. Then came On the Portrait of a Deaf Man, in which Betjeman remembers his father while staring at his grave; memories of silent walks in country lanes mingling with thoughts of the maggots now collecting in his dad's eyes. This was the saddest thing I'd ever heard.
During the late 70s, I became aware that admitting to a love for Betjeman's work invited suspicion and even open ridicule. Betjeman was name-checked, alongside Leo Sayer or the National Front on a Seditionaries T-shirt, as an example of something it was cool to hate. Bukowski and Ginsberg were considered the cool poets of the time, but they said nothing to me about my life. The world Betjeman eulogised in his poems could not have been further from my own either, but it was his world that I longed to inhabit. It was his poetry that tugged at my heart, made me laugh and feel less alone.
In music circles, Betjeman has his disciples. Morrissey referenced Betjeman's 1937 poem Slough on Everyday Is Like Sunday and chose Child Ill for his 2004 NME compilation Songs to Save Your Life. Nick Cave, Suggs and British Sea Power have all cited Betjeman as an inspiration, whereas dance producer Andrew Weatherall has covered his music. Jarvis Cocker is known to play selections from Banana Blush on his BBC 6 Music show.
Betjeman never expected his work to endure. As early as 1961 he confidently remarked: "I will be completely forgotten in five years from now." He was wrong, very wrong. Most publishers would rather welcome a burglar on to their premises than a poet, yet Betjeman's Collected Poems have sold in excess of 2m in the UK alone, making him a phenomenon in modern English literature. Long before his death he became something of a national teddy bear.
And yet I rarely encounter fellow Betjeman enthusiasts. Whenever his name comes up these days, I'm told that he has not dated well. Too parochial by half. A little too twee and sentimental for comfort. His narrow, pastoral view of national identity ("oil-lit churches, village inns, arguments about cow parsley on the altar, the noise of mowing machines on Saturday afternoons, leaning on gates") too redolent of the insular Little Englander inwardly raging at the spread of suburbia and evil traffic jams.
Then I return to Banana Blush and I hear an altogether different Betjeman. A poet of great emotional power and resonance who, while documenting a vanishing England, always had one eye on eternity.
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