Back in 1982 I decided I just had to meet John Betjeman. I wondered how I might achieve this. Then I discovered that Lady Penelope was giving one of her lectures on Hindu temples at Lacock Abbey. It seemed the perfect opportunity. So I went, and took with me a small gift for him – a recently-published book of mine – the first ever – entitled A Victorian View of Old England, a compilation of Victorian text and engravings of English scenes.
Penelope finished her talk, and I approached her. She was surrounded by a chattering group, happily answering questions in her high, clear and faintly edgy voice. I greeted her, handed her the book and asked if she would be kind enough to give it to Sir John with my compliments. ‘Oh, he’ll like that. Thank you,’ she smiled. I said it would be lovely to meet him one day. ‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘But you MUSTN’T STAY MORE THAN TEN MINUTES. D’you understand?’ Capitals were her way of stressing phrases in her letters and it seems only right to use them when quoting her. I reassured her and said ten minutes would be fine. She pulled out a small notebook and wrote in it. ‘I’ll arrange a meeting for you with his secretary.’ A day or two later she rang me to tell me to go to No 29 Radnor Walk. Could I manage August 19th? Somewhere round about 11.30? I most certainly could.
Why I didn’t discover Betjeman’s poetry before I was forty I can’t imagine. But when I did it came as a revelation. In his free use of strict scansion and rhyme his disregard for the lofty poetry-world critics was made clear. And his discovery of the funny in the obscure, his trick of capturing the extraordinary within the ordinary, his skill in communicating all this, made him stand alone. From that day onwards I blatantly imitated his style.
On August 19, 1982, I took a day’s holiday. My early feelings of inadequacy and my father’s ready confirmation of it came to me as I rang the doorbell of No 29 Radnor Walk. Little old me, going into the home of the Poet Laureate, now into the hallway, now into the small front room, seeing him sitting there in an easy chair, turning his head stiffly towards me. The three full-blown strokes he had suffered and advancing Parkinson’s made it difficult for him to smile.
We talked and talked and drank champagne. After half an hour or so his then secretary, Liz Moore, had to go out for ten minutes. She asked me if I would mind looking after him. The moment after she left, the phone rang. I reached for the phone, and in doing so knocked my glass of Champagne – the best Moët – on to the floor and saw it soaking the carpet. As I finished taking the message and was ringing off I caught sight of him looking across at me, eyes alight with boyish merriment.
‘Just help yourself to more,’ he said. ‘Oh, this is fun!’ He knew how to make idiots happy.
A couple on minutes later the phone rang again. It was one of the papers. What was Sir John’s reaction upon hearing that Naseby Field, the scene of the Battle of Naseby, was to have a road built through it? He thought for a moment.
‘Tell them it’s like cutting a man in half,’ he said. Then, after a pause and raising a hand – ‘Alive!’
And he sat thinking about it. I wrote a poem later, describing his gloom at that moment. John Murray once said that John was never gloomy. ‘Melancholic, yes. Never gloomy.’ It’s a nice distinction, but Jock should know, having been his publisher since 1937. Perhaps the two of them have discussed it by now, up there in some sunlit heavenly chapel.
John looked up, and pointed. He said someone had given him a painting. He was pointing to where it lay, still rolled up, and asked me to look at it. ‘What kind of mount d’you think it ought to have?’ he asked. It was of a tree, an apple tree. As I looked at it I found myself feeling somehow ‘inside’ the picture – a trick of the over-excited mind, I suppose. I told him how I felt it should look.
After unwittingly breaking Penelope’s rule by an hour and a quarter I asked him if I might just take a picture of him, with Archibald and Jumbo on his lap. Jumbo was his elephant, whom he had relegated to Number Two in his affections. He agreed instantly so Liz Moore went upstairs to his room to get them. When he had them on his lap I snapped away nervously. After I’d finished he sat looking at Archibald, his bear, murmuring, ‘Archie, Archie. You’re alive. I know you’re alive. You must be alive.’
Liz said, ‘Time to go, Sir John.’
He nodded. ‘Yes, I have to go and have lunch with Ozzy.’
‘That’s Osbert Lancaster,’ said Liz. She left the room and returned, bringing in his wheelchair. ‘Now, would you give me a hand?’ She showed me how to lift him, and I took hold of Archibald and Jumbo, laid them aside, put one arm round him and one underneath him and together we lifted him into his wheelchair.
On the way back to Sloane Square Station I felt a little lightheaded, almost as though I were floating above the pavement. I stopped at a little restaurant and had a cup of tea and a bun. The only table with an empty chair was occupied by a mother and her small son in his school uniform. He was being treated to a cream tea. I asked if she would mind if I sat there and she smiled her consent, with some pleasantry or other.
Still slightly intoxicated, more by the miracle I had just experienced than the plentiful Champagne, I sat down, beamed at them and said, ‘I’ve just been to see John Betjeman.’