This is a warts-and-all portrait, released in time for the 2006 centenary, and some of the warts are quite large. His continual ‘falling in love’ for instance gets a bit tedious as one reads on. His unashamed desire to climb as far as he could into high (titled) society is also a bit off-putting, as is his ambivalence about his sexuality: one minute he’s telling everyone he is. Then he’s saying he isn’t. And also, rather like Graham Greene, his firm Christian beliefs became flexible when the situation required.
Well, we can’t all be perfect. He was a fine poet with a terrific skill at rhyme and timing and the striking turn of phrase. And he involved himself fully against one of the great vandalisms of the day: the destruction of England’s architectural heritage, especially its Victorian heritage. He was also one of the most popular broadcasters on the new medium of television with a gift for being understood by ordinary people (something not too usual in poets!).
The downside to this TV / film success was that it more or less took over his life and there’s a view, shared by this biographer, that he would have written more and even better poetry if he had not been engulfed by the BBC and other bodies like Shell, for which he did out a series of county-by-county tourist guides.
He was a gregarious, friendly sort of person with a pronounced sense of humour, traits which Wilson brings out in this book, and which infuse his poetry, although he too had his dark moments (‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough… ‘). I think the author does a good job of work: “When we assess the life of a popular writer, we are doing rather more than telling the story of their days from birth to death. We are also describing someone who made a profound appeal to their own contemporaries, and therefore we are seeing something about their generation’. Betjeman certainly did appeal to his contemporaries. He was a fine poet, is a fine poet, with all the usual personal failings.
A good read this book, although I would have liked a little more about the poetry. To which the only reply must be: Well, then, go and read the poetry. Quite right too.