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Second class


John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, 1934-1958 By Bevis Hillier. John Murray, 2002. £25

I thought the three-volume literary biography had gone the way of the legendary Victorian three-volume novel, until the 700page second instalment of Bevis Hillier's life of John Betjeman, New Fame, New Love, brought me up with a jolt. That a minor poetaster should be worth treatment that, say, TS Eliot has not yet received, made the shock all the more. Hillier justifies it by repeating historian AJP Taylor's comment on a similarly flawed hero, Lord Beaverbrook: 'I loved the man.'

Love it must be. 'I have now devoted over 25 years of my life to the 78 years of John Betjeman's, ' he writes; much of it taken up interviewing people who knew the Betjemans as they moved around Berkshire.Hillier seems to like the Berkshire burr, but when written down it comes across as a series of anecdotes.

Many are about Betjeman's wife Penelope, and her Arab gelding Moti, whom Lord Berners entertained to tea in his drawing room along with his boyfriend, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. It is that sort of book.

Hillier's way of dealing with these strange amalgams is derived - I kid you not - from the interlocking plates on an armadillo's back. This translates into a series of chapters on episodes in Betjeman's life or his various activities; they certainly overlap and between some the boundaries are arbitrary and unclear.

Loosely chronological, they start with the family moving to Uffington, and Betjeman's job as a film critic for the Evening Standard - having departed from the Architectural Review in circumstances that are not wholly explained. It moves through his work on the Shell guides, several volumes of poetry, his war years at the Ministry of Information, his time as press attaché in Ireland and at the Admiralty, and onto his activity as a preservationist and broadcaster. On the way, the Betjemans acquire a son and a daughter (the former's birth provoking a long and dreadful poem by Maurice Bowra, the warden of Wadham College Oxford).

Moti smashes up a cart or two, and Betjeman finds solace in the arms of other women.

A real biography might find some way of using the crassly banal reflections of some of Betjeman's Berkshire neighbours, or the minutiae of their domestic disagreements, to illuminate his public work and persona.

Instead, Hillier leaves them at the level of a chronicle, as if the internal dynamic of snobbism, disaffection and gossip is enough to sanction their contemporary interest.

For me, it is not. Lord Berners may have been the closest Britain produced to Stravinsky, and Betjeman perhaps the third or fourth best poet of his generation, but Berners was even further behind the Russian master than Betjeman was behind his erstwhile prep school teacher, Eliot. To prise open the armadillo's plates would have been to expose the whole structure of English intellectual life in the middle of the last century as a near sham, dominated by people who, if they did not come from exactly the same class, knew each other through school or university.

Having had a good time in the Eton Arts Society and Oxford in the 1920s, they proceeded to treat their increasingly influential public roles as an extended stage for practical jokes on each other. It was a particularly long-lasting and self-obsessed generation as, for example, Betjeman's broadcast on his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh shows, and uniquely contemptuous of its forerunners and successors.

Betjeman's scorn for his parents-in-law, Field Marshall the Lord and Lady Chetwode, is palpable (though he liked his wife being 'the Hon'). Anyone educated at a less august institution than a major public school, hardly merits consideration. At the same time as English 'intellectuals' were engaging in this extended onanism, the French were producing some genuinely serious ideas. A biography of Betjeman might have been a powerful vehicle to examine this situation.

In Hillier's hands, it merely extends the disagreeable prejudices his subject so successfully nurtured.

In the future, I hope, three-volume biographies will be confined to people who put real scores on the board. People like Field Marshall Chetwode, former Commanderin-Chief in India, a man who loved his horses - if not the soldiers who rode them - enough to allow them to rest while Paul Krueger's train escaped, thereby prolonging the Boer War by at least a year.At least he had the guts to admit his mistake.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University 'You must take endless precautions, in Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, wherever you are, it is there, ' wrote Roland Barthes, adding: 'It is everywhere on the globe when Paris is to be stated as an image.'Certainly, the images in The Eiffel Tower (Princeton Architectural Press, £14.95), all taken by one of Le Corbusier's preferred photographers, Lucien Hervé, bear this out - the tower crops up from some very odd angles - but the strongest simply focus on its intricate iron framework.

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