In Memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava – John Betjeman

In Memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava

On such a morning as this
with the birds ricocheting their music
Out of the whelming elms
to a copper beech’s embrace
And a sifting sound of leaves
from multitudinous branches
Running across the park
to a chequer of light on the lake,
On such a morning as this
with ‘The Times’ for June the eleventh
Left with coffee and toast
you opened the breakfast-room window
And, sprawled on the southward terrace,
said: “That means war in September.”

Friend of my youth, you are dead!
and the long peel pours from the steeple
Over this sunlit quad
in our University city
And soaks in Headington stone.
Motionless stand the pinnacles.
Under a flying sky
as though they too listened and waited
Like me for your dear return
with a Bullingdon nose of an evening
In a Sports-Bugatti from Thame
that belonged to a man in Magdelen.
Friend of my youth you are dead!
and the quads are empty without you.

Then there were people about.
Each hour, like and Oxford archway,
Opened on long green lawns
and distant unvisited buildings
And you my friend were explorer
and so you remained to me always
Humorous, reckless, loyal –
my kind heavy-lidded companion.
Stop, oh many bells, stop
pouring on roses, and creeper
Your unremembering peal
this hollow, unhallowed V. E. Day, –
I am deaf to your notes and dead
by a soldier’s body in Burma.

John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

From 1945 Poems ‘New Bats, And old Belfries’

Marquess – a nobleman ranking between a duke and an earl.
Headington stone is a limestone from the Headington Quarry area of Oxford
V.E. Day – 8 May 1945 – Victory in Europe
The Bullingdon Club – the notorious all-male Oxford University dining club.
Sports-Bugatti – a rather nice sports-car

Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava died on 25 March 1945 at age 35 at Burma, killed in action. He was educated at Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire, England and at Balliol College, Oxford University. He was an intimate contemporary friend of John Betjeman. He was exceptionally talented and led an extrodinary life.

If, in the first stanza, the poem relates to an image of life on 11 June 1939 then Basil would have been 29 years old and John Betjeman a little older. Clearly they were staying together perhaps near Oxford. The opening of a breakfast window to a beautiful June summer morning reminds me of the opening words of Mrs Dalloway. These words portray a lazy carefree picture of upper-class life. The last line is important in making the contrast link to the pending war which is about to complete destroy this somewhat idealistic picture of England.

JB’s Oxford life is the backdrop of his memory to times with his friend. And he awaits the return of his friend as a he once did when waiting for him to turn up at the Bullingdon Club in a dashing sport car. The bells are ringing out from the steeple and we find out in the last stanza that it is V. E. Day a day of celebration but it is a hollow unhallowed day because JB lost his close friend in the war in March. And the cry goes out to Stop, oh many bells, stop.

JB did not make friends easily but he did he lavish affection upon old friends. In this personal elegy we see him share his deep feelings in the words of this poem.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death.

JB on Wikipedia

A Subaltern’s Love Song – John Betjeman – Analysis

A Subaltern’s Love Song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament — you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath.
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

John Betjeman

Subaltern – junior officer in the British Army of rank below captain.
Euonymus – a tree or bush grown for its decorative evergreen foliage and clusters of orange or red fruits.

Ten syllable lines of flowing (dancing) iambic rhythm with ‘aabb’ rhyme as the story of a love affair unfolds – all be it an imaginary conceit.

This is a delightful poem reflecting English middle-class culture at the time it was written in 1941. I’m sure they had a glass of lemonade and maybe a cucumber sandwich as they sat in the garden recovering from their tennis exertion. And owning a car shows a certain status and so too membership of a Golf Club.

The context behind this poem is very personal to the life of JB. The muse of this poem is Joan Hunter Dunn the daughter of a Farnborough doctor. JB met Joan in London in 1940. She was working in the canteen at the University of London where JB was working. At the time JB was a married man of seven years but he was so taken by Joan’s beauty and manner that he composed the above 44 line poem fantasizing himself as the subaltern. At a subsequent interview in 1965 Joan commented that her life was very much like that depicted in the poem and that the poem and meeting JB gave some light relief from the stress of the war.

Aldershot is the home of the British Army and Farnborough is adjacent and many will know about the Farnborough Air Show. I am familiar with Farnborough, Aldershot and Camberley. I can easily identify with the woodland scenery of the country lanes in the drive to the Golf Club. There is such a contrast in sentiment between these towns and the angry word blast that came in JB’s  1937 poem ‘Slough’ when he reacted so strongly to the changing English urban architecture. That tragic first line –
‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!’

It is quite obvious that a poet must be careful when including actual place names and actual people. This poem has both and hopefully today we would be more sensitive. For JB published the poem in a magazine without informing Joan Hunter Dunn. He then invited her to dinner and apologised. And in 1937 when he wrote ‘Slough’ JB was 31 without the recognition of Poet Laureate which brought more attention to the poem. On the centenary of Betjeman’s birth in 2006 his daughter Candida Lycett-Green apologised to Slough on his behalf saying her father regretted writing the poem.

Here is a link to details on Joan Hunter Dunn. She died in 2008 at the age of 92 … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Hunter_Dunn

John Betjeman on Wikipedia – he was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death

Death in Leamington – John Betjeman – Analysis

Death in Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa.

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And ‘Tea!’ she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five.”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive!

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the grey, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

John Betjeman 1906-1984 (from Mount Zion 1932)
This was one of the first poems published by JB.

S1 … The first line defines the death and place of death without adjective and as a matter-of-fact statement, leaving the reader to furnish an image from his or her own thoughts. Time-wise she died at the time the evening star – Venus – the planet of love and beauty – was visible from her window, an appropriate marriage with death. The window had expensive plate glass and looked out over Leamington Spa – a royal town noted for those seeking heath cures.

S2 … Death is transferred to the unfinished crochet work … the fingers are dead in line with the voice. How the crochet will come alive again and finished is another matter. It points to how the lady was using her last days – the scene is easy to picture.

S3 … The Nurse enters with her tea-things pre-occupied with her the jobs at hand and her internal thoughts and oblivious to the death. What a brilliant way to put it – ‘alone with her own little soul’ – and again the tea-things are personified in a similar way. A clear separateness is established between the death and the Nurse.

S4 … the Nurse goes about her routine evening work … she is fully focused on this … before having time to address the sick lady

S5 … then with some cheeriness the Nurse announces the arrival of tea … asking for her patient to wakeup … you can imagine her speaking with the back to the bed … the Nurse is very much alive and of course her ladyship very much dead … the room is distinctly divided … ‘half dead and half alive’ nicely gives a comparison between the two.

S6 … then still not aware of the situation and not looking at the bed the Nurse comments on the state of the plasterwork … death is personified in the falling plaster … and the Nurse says ‘do you know that the heart will stop’ referring to the arches … (if the lady could speak she would say ‘Yes indeed’!)

S7 … then attention is turned to the bed and bedside … and Nurse becomes well aware of what has happened … and there is a still calm about the death scene and equally the still of a Leamington evening drifts into place as the day dies in unison

S8 … the Nurse is very careful now to show great respect by moving bottles to safety at the bedside and then quietly leaving without disturbing the peace of death to quietly tip toe down the stairs and to turn down the hall gas – (symbolic sympathy by this action)

It is so easy to picture the scene … beautifully crafted with the dying day and the dying plaster… with just enough detail in the account of the transaction focusing on specific actions … showing the respect between Nurse and patient together with a sort of matter of fact acceptance of death which Nurse knew was coming soon.

It is easy to see why this was chosen as the first up poem in my ‘Best of Betjeman’ book.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1972 to 1984 and here is a link to John Betjeman on Wikipedia … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Betjeman

And here is a reading of this poem on YouTube (by Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams) …   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dI8SYa8Szo

Executive – John Betjeman – Analysis

Executive

I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
^ ^ ^ ^ ^/^^^ ^^/ ^ ^ ^^^
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina.
^ ^ ^^^/ ^^ ^ ^ ^/ ^ ^ ^^^
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
^ ^^^ ^/^ ^^^ ^/ ^ ^ ^^ ^
The maîtres d’hôtel all know me well, and let me sign the bill.
^ ^^ ^^/ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^/ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^
(aabb 15 syllable lines)

You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly P.R.O.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.

For vital off-the-record work – that’s talking transport-wise –
I’ve a scarlet Aston-Martin – and does she go? She flies!
Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.

She’s built of fibre-glass, of course. I call her ‘Mandy Jane’
After a bird I used to know – No soda, please, just plain –
And how did I acquire her? Well, to tell you about that
And to put you in the picture, I must wear my other hat.

I do some mild developing. The sort of place I need
Is a quiet country market town that’s rather run to seed
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire –
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.

And if some Preservationist attempts to interfere
A ‘dangerous structure’ notice from the Borough Engineer
Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way –
The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay.

John Betjeman (1974)

This is a period piece clearly identified by those around in England in the sixties. I remember when the Ford Cortina was the latest and greatest. And having a slim line brief case was more important than any contents! (I joke).

There was a certain respect for the upper class even though this ‘yuppie’ is portrayed here as arrogant and boastful with superficial values and the need to keep up appearances – No cuffs than mine are cleaner – I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.

A ‘yuppie’ is defined as a young urban professional. Note also that most people would work a nine to five day but this young fellow obvious enjoys his other life much more and manages to start at ten.

But not only does he suffer mockery, corporate speech and corruption take a light hearted beating too. P.R.O = Public Relations Officer and ‘integration’ the in-word in corporate development. And it is a case of knowing the right person and using such influence for personal gain – and is that so different from the way many people operate today?

The poem has well-constructed rhythm and rhyme which bounces the monologue before the reader. You can imagine the conversation taking place at one of the hostelries frequented by this person as he pursues his interest in looking for real estate opportunities. And the implication is that he does not pay his way easily – and let me sign the bill.

I like ‘Mandy’ as a choice of name – do you remember Mandy Rice-Davies and the ‘Profumo Affair’.  Mandy would have such public association for those reading this poem at the time it was published.

Betjeman has been cited as a poet of nostalgia with a dislike of the modern. This is clearly evident in this poem. He certainly mocks the bull-nose development of his day and although it is period piece it also has a certain resonance with modern times.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984. This link gives more detailed commentary on his poetry.

… and a link to John Betjeman on Wikipedia.