Thursday, September 07, 2006

Dublin Betjeman Reading

The John Betjeman Centenary has seen some fairly rabid activity in the UK media in particular. Maybe rabid's a bit strong - tepid seems more appropriate. Somewhat of a storm in an old, cold teacup IMHO. The man's reputation as a light entertainer is well established, but there seems a real need to bolster his reputation as a 'serious' poet in certain quarters. Protesting a tad too much perhaps? Some of the celeb tributes seemed a bit of a stretch too - Joanna Lumley, the hockey girl anyone?

I believe the idea of a Betjeman event in Dublin originated from the poet's daughter Candida, who was born while her father was UK Press Attache here in the forties. I've never really been a fan of Betjeman, but I went along to the recent reading organised by those excellent people in Poetry Ireland. I was interested to see if having Tony Cronin and Derek Mahon on the lectern would in any way rehabilitate my opinion of the man or the work. Afraid not, chum.

I guess the reading being in a church was apt, because hearing the Teddy Bear's Choice Cuts intoned with reverence finally drove the nails into the coffinlid for this particular punter, re-affirming my (accepted) prejudice. The weather seemed to agree, a particularly heavy shower drumming the roof wildly at one point to overwhelm the somewhat uncertain reader. That was the rhythmic and emotional highpoint for me. A lot of the people there seemed well tickled by the work - but I just can't get past the patronising Spiffing Rhymes for Middle England tone. Or something. And what's with all the leering? Women are indeed wonderful - but no need to be so adolescent, old man!

Well, as you can see, it does seem to get a fairly strong reaction out of me. That's really why I went - to see if I could plumb my churlishness into something more graceful - but no - I remain no fan of Lecheman. However, indulging personal dislikes (and even the occasional fear) can deliver unexpected rewards - so thanks to all concerned for the opportunity to attend.

Cronin told one interesting yarn about Betjeman's time in Dublin. Apparently Patrick Kavanagh once told Cronin that Betjeman tried to recruit him onto the British Intelligence payroll (over cucumber sandwiches in the Shelbourne Hotel no less) which he considered at the time (being skint) but eventually declined. Cronin's take was that of a fellow poet trying to put a little cash in the path of an indigent colleague, but I dunno - I reckon Kavanagh probably glammed a wee cuppa up into a yarn.

Anyway, lets hope Betjeman's contemporary Louis MacNeice gets as much coverage for his own centenary, this time next year. Now there's a writer who's legacy strengthens daily, with much less hoopla.