John Betjeman was a poet who knew how to work society
John Betjeman has been in the news again, with the sad death of his daughter, Candida Lycett Green, followed by Return to Betjemanland, A.N. Wilson’s affectionate BBC Four documentary on him. These events recalled to mind an encounter I had with him in the late 1970s, when I was literary editor of the Listener.
I was taking the writer Caroline Blackwood out to lunch, and as soon as we entered the restaurant we saw Betjeman sitting at a table with some other people. He immediately noticed Caroline, sprang to his feet, eyes sparkling, and called out to her: “I’ve just ordered several copies of that book!”
It was a brilliant utterance. It carried a heavy load of charming flattery to Caroline while committing himself to nothing. “Just ordered” — he had been quick off the mark to notice her latest book and seek it out. “Several copies” — he already intended to give it as a present to his friends that they would enjoy. Yet it had been “ordered”, not yet bought. He could avoid any questions about it, as he admitted that he had not yet had the opportunity to read it. And “that book” — the “that” suggested it was already firmly in the public eye and being discussed — was far better and safer than simply “your new book”.
In fact, although of course he had instantly recognised Caroline, I suspected that he did not even know whether she had a new book out or not. There was not a scrap of evidence in his remark for that. I think he had simply assumed that there must have been one published quite recently, or at least announced for publication, and he could safely congratulate her on it if he chose his words rightly.
Caroline smiled. It had been the right thing to say. It had done the trick. There is a late poem by Betjeman called “Executive”. It is about one of his bêtes noires, a property developer. The speaker in the poem describes how he will find “a quiet country market town that’s rather run to seed”, and then get what he wants there:
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire —
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.
Betjeman knew what he was talking about in that poem. He knew better than most people — to borrow the title of one of his most famous poems — “How to Get On in Society”. But he was in a class of his own, far above that of the property developer. The sentence with which he greeted Caroline was a specimen of savoir faire of heroic proportions.