Why Sir John Betjeman was right about books

PUBLISHED: 07:28 18 March 2018

Poet Laureate John Betjeman during a visit to Norfolk in May 1974.

Poet Laureate John Betjeman during a visit to Norfolk in May 1974.


Keith Skipper recalls some wise words from bibliophile Sir John Betjeman, the Norfolk-loving Poet Laureate.

I’m setting myself the ultimate challenge – to complete an entire column without mentioning a certain seven-letter word beginning with “w” wrapped up in strange meteorological goings-on outside.

There will be time and space enough to reflect on them as The Daring Buds of March open a pathway to spring and hopefully remind us how H E Bates occasionally fell a couple of months behind nature’s most bountiful routine.

My recent getting-away-from-it-all indoors mission began with a guilty rummage in crammed boxes on our top floor. Several old friends rubbed covers with acquaintances yet to be made. I whispered new promises as untouched pages pleaded for attention.

It’s not easy being faithful to a library overflow, especially when family, friends and personal indulgence keep adding to the choice. Still, no book deserves to be treated like a second-class citizen, shoved into the shadows to wait for chance to lend a hand.

I blew dust off an anthology of Sir John Betjeman’s work sandwiched between a collection of American short stories and my other spare copy of Adrian Bell’s Apple Acre. The slightly dishevelled figure of the man who became our Poet Laureate in 1972 stood chortling at me for making him comeback author of the day.

In fact, I got much more than I bargained for on ushering him into the study for a gentle stroll in search of Norfolk references piling up during his favourite hobby of church-crawling. The volume fell open on the script of a BBC radio broadcast he made in August 1939, called How To Look At Books. I sensed immediately that fate had thrown us together as his opening lines danced before my eyes …

“What the roulette table is to the gambler, the second-hand bookshop is to me. It has a fatal lure. I like the dusty shelves, the gas-jet popping in the inner room, the learned proprietor who only produces his treasures when you show him that you too love books, worthless old volumes ranged at a penny each outside the shop, the odd mixture of the interesting and unreadable ranged in rows of brown leather, red board, green board and paper jackets all round the walls.”

That fatal lure’s still there, I cried, warming to such an understanding kindred spirit released only minutes earlier from top-floor confinement. Then budding consolation turned into full-blown vindication as he looked me full in the face…

“I started collecting books when I was twelve. Now, my room at home is like a second-hand bookshop and books have overflowed into other rooms in the house. They are piled up on the floor, ranged round the walls of bedrooms, littered over the table in the hall.”

I sought in vain to celebrate being on the same untidy shelf as this great literary character with lines like “blowing my cover” and “following his example, chapter and verse”. Best simply to give thanks for so glorious an admission.

Sir John acknowledged my salute with another shared trait - “I can’t bear to part with a single volume” – and an example even people like us would find hard to emulate:“Richard Heber, the greatest book collector who ever lived, said you should have three copies of every book, one to look at, one to read and one to lend. When he died in 1833, he had eight houses, each full of books, and 158,000 books altogether.”

Another rich spread awaited towards the end of this captivating collection in the form of script and directions for A Passion for Churches, Betjeman’s 1974 BBC television tour of Norfolk and Suffolk.

His journey begins in a rowing boat … “I was eight or nine years old when I used to come here to the Norfolk Broads on the River Bure sailing and rowing with my father. And I think it was the outline of that church tower at Belaugh against the sky which gave me a passion, so that every church I have been past since I’ve wanted to stop and look in.”

What a man! Eccentric, sentimental and homespun, his passions were largely self-taught and found strength and voice as he saw his country being devastated by war and progress. That anthology is assured of a lengthy March inspection.

There we are, a column without a mention of the “w” word or harping back to 1947 and 1963. The world of books is so much cosier.

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