John Betjeman reading his poetry

Betjeman the beat poet

A thrilling “collab” between the then Poet Laureate and a group of avant garde performance artists


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It must have been the cacofiddle that did it. On a December evening 16 months ago, given a brief evening-release by the clown-suited prison-warders purporting to run the country, I found myself at a beguiling concert in a Hampstead church where the little band, as raffish and bohemian as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, swayed and tootled through their tunes. 

As it happens, the music was seventeenth-century French groove, not the folksy boogie you might expect, but the atmosphere was festive and bibulous, and among the instruments there it stood: the legendary, chopped-down double bass bespangled with bells, a bunch of percussion and a rudimentary swanee whistle — handling a bangin’ sword-fight air from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s music to Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with verve and aplomb, what’s more.

Ironists of a superior sort would cite the records as a forgotten tragedy of taste

But had time itself been reversed? This eccentric creature, a one-man-band-aid from outer space, unseen for 40 years, was the invention of William Bealby-Wright, one of the crackpots who made up The Barrow Poets, a performance group of the 1960s and ’70s out of the same general stable as Vivian Stanshall’s various misdemeanours — rackety pub poets with vague leanings to art-rock; Bonzo Dogs mated with Velvet Underground. Before evidently vanishing in the 1980s (following a stint as Doggerel Bank), some of the Poets reconvened for a final fling, their least likely yet: a 1974 collaboration with the then Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, making a musical backdrop to his poems while the old boy recited them in his rueful way.

The mysterious cacofiddle (Picture credit: Bonnie Britain)

This ridiculous instrument was the madeleine that had sent my memory burrowing back to those happy post-punk days. Bealby-Wright’s co-poet, Jim Parker (below), wrote the music, the session musicians were hired, and four LPs were cut, the final one in 1981, when Betjeman was 75. 

They enjoyed a brief, nichey notoriety — even back then you pretty much had to be some kind of Brideshead cosplayer to be a fan of JB — before fading away into the mists as completely as the late lamented Bow Wow Wow. John Peel would occasionally play one of them for a laugh. Suggs, Jarvis Cocker and Nick Cave professed breathless admiration. Ironists of a superior sort would cite the records as a forgotten tragedy of taste. 

They are no such thing, of course. But perhaps Betjeman is (even) better from a distance. Now that only a small band of gouty Telegraphers take it at face value, the rest of us — freed from nostalgia for things that vanished aeons ago if they ever existed at all — can see and hear the man more clearly in his place and time. 

The chosen poems reflect his usual maggots

One of the marvellous rightnesses of the Parker settings is that they echo the pre-dated feel of the poems themselves: these were already determinedly fogeyish, almost redundant, when they were written, and Parker chose musical idioms to reflect that, though with a definite post-hippie sensibility. When else might a brass band (featuring those nineteenth-century starlets, cornet, euphonium and flugelhorn), mix with steel guitar, piano, drums, sax, strings, harmonium — yeah, and cacofiddle? And yet there is nothing caricatured or disparaging in it — except that of course Betjeman himself is frequently less than entirely serious.

Jim Parker

The chosen poems reflect his usual maggots: suburbia, and the trains that rattle there, and the lives of its denizens; yearning, desperate lust for strong-limbed girls; the freighted love-lives of children; old age, terror, death. They are soaked with fear, longing, pity, brought to aching pitch by Parker’s arrangements, drifting in from lost worlds that now feel as distant and ethereal as dreams. 

This business of setting spoken words to music had a long history before Ian Dury or rap made a thing of it: even Mozart gave it a go, in an abortive attempt to improve on the somewhat expressively limited device of recitativo secco that was opera’s solution to the narrative problem for a hundred years and more. 

Parker’s arrangements are not proto-rap by any stretch — though the music is measured to the lines, there’s no rhythmic emphasis: they are spoken entirely naturally. There was a short craze for this kind of pimped-up poetry 50 years ago — including some not wildly successful attempts using jazz. But nothing I know is as well-judged or economically effective as these, which actually amplify the resonances of the poems, pangs of homesickness for things that can hardly be defined.

“For I’m old and ill, and terrified — and tight”

Most important of all, they are also hilarious, in the most elegant way possible. Betjeman’s line (surely a better, more humane vision than Eliot’s London Bridge), “a thousand business-women having baths in Camden Town”, is accompanied by a sort of Bacharach piano track with mournful horns and the plangent country-music glissandos of a steel guitar. 

“Rest you there, poor unbeloved ones!” — a baroque mixture of sympathy, teasing, an extraordinarily evocative exactitude of imagery, plus the usual old-man’s Peeping-Tommery that makes you thank the Lord that this Orpheus is happily dead and buried and safe from the Mænads who would dismember him now.

Parker the magpie scavenges wide in his search for the right tone — a bit of wartime swing, some decorative jive and Charleston … A hymnic Sankey-and-Moody intro leads to a kind of tea-dance shuffle where the poet finds himself — during a childhood game of hide-and-seek — in a small cupboard with the enchanting Wendy, a pre-sexual moment that fixes the future of his love-life in a wistful aspic. 

Seeing “the mistress” kneeling in a Lenten church (with a jingle-jangly Cat Stevens acoustic guitar) yields “a glimpse of the unknown God”. A spot of drum-and-bass funk with wah-wah guitar introduces the central image of the old fool forever possessed by the satyr:

To see the golden hiking-girl with wind about her hair, The tennis-playing, biking girl, the wholly-to-my-liking girl, to see — and not to care…

A whisky-driven encounter with an old love raises a ghastly spectre in his head “wherein two skeletons are shown to hold each other tight”:

Dark sockets look on emptiness that once was loving-eyed; The mouth that opens for a kiss has got no tongue inside.

— accompanied, this one, by an unclassifiable mix of funereal harmonium, groovy bassline and unimproveably Seventies axe-work by Vic Flick. The distant sound of a band playing on the Heath casts an enchanted, tragic nimbus around the piercingly strange and poignant view from the tram heading towards West Hill:

… and my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down

Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town…

Edwardian music of the Eric Coates variety propels the red electric commuter train into Ruislip Gardens: “With a thousand ta’s and pardon’s daintily alights Elaine”, as she returns to her suburban parents in the “lost Elysium” of Middlesex. And a schmoozy piano casts a jaded eye, with its proprietress, over the sordid morning aspect (with a “squashed tomato sandwich on the floor”) of the nightclub on the bypass, before stopping your heart with the devastating denouement:

But I’m dying now and done for — what on earth was all the fun for?

For I’m old and ill, and terrified — and tight. 

I suppose the usual point-missers might observe that Betjeman is no Shelley, nor yet Larkin. All very true, but I would point out that neither are Shelley and Larkin any Betjeman. Other fools demean him with the ghastly tweeness of those doom-laden words “quirky” or “eccentric” or “quintessentially English”. 

“Inappropriate behaviour” that no amount of disapproval from our joyless offspring, or the Guardian, can ever kill

Bollocks to that. These few dozen songs are odd, brilliant, and fall into that strong and wildly nonconformist (if floppily-formed) London bracket that includes “Waterloo Sunset”, Peter Ackroyd, William Hogarth. And they finally opened doors for Parker too, whose greatest hit was otherwise the deathless Captain Beaky of 1980: following the Betjeman records he was hired to write music for TV and films, including for those peculiar classics, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. 

There is a postscript to this, even freakier, if possible. In 1993 a BBC film was made — and I’m sure they have sought to destroy every print, though it survives for now on YouTube — a dramatization, with a 60-something Nigel Hawthorne as the Betjeman figure, finding himself on an old voyeur’s fantasy country-house weekend surrounded by lissom young things of various sexes. Not only that, but the drama is not acted but danced — that’s right, choreographed by Matthew Bourne with a fabulous mixture of seriousness, tongue-in-cheek, camp and genuine sexiness. 

To be sure, there are Benny Hill overtones, and viewed one (highly diverting) way it is a catalogue of today’s Seven Deadliest Sins: everyone is white, heterosexual, and available if not simply aching to be perved, letched and otherwise affirmed. (Part of the joke surely is that so many involved are actually gay.) It is completely marvellous. 

Certainly, Betjeman’s lines “I could not speak for amazement at your beauty/As you came down the Garrick stair” do not need the slightest visual aid, especially when bespangled with the glittering wash of Parker’s softly-rolled cymbal — and yet Hawthorne’s expression of stunned, thunderbolt, hopeless thraldom is a thing to see, the apotheosis of treasurable “inappropriate behaviour” that no amount of disapproval from our joyless offspring, or the Guardian, can ever kill.

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