Friday, April 20, 2007

Bully's Book Club: Trains and Buttered Toast

Bully's Book Club

I love trains, especially those steaming towards exotic locales like Chipping Camden, Bovey Tracey or Barton in the Beans—even if it's just slowly chugging around the Circle Line in an anti-clockwise direction taking me from Blackfriars to Bayswater. I love buttered toast, especially with a hot mug of sweet milky tea, or, if you want a little more filling brekkie, a nice slice of gammon and some savory cheese. I love John Betjeman, cranky Poet Laureate of Britain (1972-1984), not only for his wonderful accessible but deep poetry but for his sheer love and enthusiasm for British history, culture, and architecture—especially in his sublime TV documentary Metro-land (how much do I love Metro-land? I love Metro-land so much that when I was in the UK over Christmas I bought a copy on DVD even tho' I don't have a region 2 DVD player. Yes, I'm saving up for a region-free player as we now speak.) I love books, especially on Britain. That makes Trains and Buttered Toast: Selected Radio Talks by John Betjeman a four-layered cream bun of rich Britishy goodness. It was one of the last things I bought as a souvenir of my London Christmas trip: I hadn't seen it on all my dozens of visits in London bookshops over ten days until the very last moments, when it caught my eye on an endcap in the same Heathrow Airport Borders where I bought the Spike Milligan book. And on my flight back, in between waiting for the Doctor Who "The Christmas Invasion" episode to cycle around on the in-flight mini-telly so I could watch it for a second time, I dived into Trains and Buttered Toast and its celebration and wistful memories of England made me miss Britain even more.

Betjeman's stature as national icon and beloved preserver—sometimes successful, often unsuccessful—of the traditions, ideas, and monuments of an England gone is something I'd admired for a long time: he was in the arts news frequently during my very first extended visit to the UK towards the tale end of his lengthy tenure as Poet Laureate, and on a whim I picked up, for what a pencil mark inside the front cover tells me was 20p, a battered and turn Penguin copy of his selected poems. I'm not a huge poetry reader (Edward Lear is more my style than Nick Flynn), but time and again I'd find myself turning back to this book and (in an unusual move for book-preserver me) dog-earing pages with poems I especially loved, like "How to Get On In Society":
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule's comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you—
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;
Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I take comfort in poetry about tea-cakes much more than any lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'ing or Wordsworth's bloody daffodils.

Trains and Buttered Toast is a compact but extensive anthology of radio talks Betjeman gave for the BBC, both celebratory and inspirational (that's inspirational in the esthetic sense, not necessarily in the religious sense, although there's a few spiritual ones in here), but he's no gusher (probably the first time the words "gusher" and "Betjeman" have been used in the same sentence, huh?): he's frequently cranky and curmudgeonly about the culture and the people even while he celebrates them, scolding Brits for vacationing here instead of there, for flocking to this artist instead of reading this book, for surrounding the glorious gothic beauty of King's Cross Station with ugly construction work (which was present in Christmas 2006, either still or again, proving his point perfectly). The BBC (another one of my favorite institutions, despite its stubbornness in refusing to re-run The Goodies) was and still is a very different broadcasting beast than those in American then or now: a semi-occasional series of talks on whatever the heck Betjeman felt like talking about that week proved very successful mainly due to the circumstances and his times: in a country where broadcasting is often heavily regionalized, he was carried on the closest thing to absolute coast-to-coast radio: he broadcast on a mixture of all three BBC wireless networks, the Light Programme (now Radio One), the Home Service (now Radio Two) and the Third Programme (now Radio, Radio Three.) Speaking to a pre-WWII and World War audience on his obsession with Britain in miniature—his likes and dislikes in art, literature, traditions, and even whole British towns was, although it came from the Oxford-educated Betjeman, well-received across England in an age when "Britishness" became important not only as a way of thinking to preserve one's pride and sanity under the spectre of war, but a way to approach the ever-decreasing barriers between the social classes. Those barriers would never truly go away (and today seem to manifest themselves in racial and immigrant barriers, but as Hitler loomed, lower-, middle-, and upper-class took comfort in the idea of England's green and pleasant, and Betjeman writing and talks were valuable inspiration.

He writes of casual and stoic calm during the Blitz
Then I think of a story someone told me during the Battle of Britain....She had to go and judge a Woman's Institute competition for the best-decorated table centre in a village in Kent. Bombs and aeroplanes were falling out of the sky, guns thundered and fragments of shell whizzed about. 'I am afraid we have not everybody here,' said the Head of the Institute. 'You see, several of our members had to be up all night—but we have quite a little show all the same.' And there they were: the raffia mats, the bowls of bulbs, the trailing ends of smilax writhing round mustard and pepper pots. God be praised for such dogged calm.
He writes of seaside resorts and the chalk downs, church clocks and modest post offices, lush gardens and afternoon tea, crumbling garden walls with the afternoon sun shining on the mossy stones. Take a deep breath as you read and you can smell the roasted hot potatoes and taste the warm bitter beer he sings of, hear the chirps of fussy commuters and sharp-tongued conductors, feel the soft elegance of a newly blocked silk hat or a cricket bat in your hands. Diane Ackerman, best writer on the senses? Pfui. Give me Betjeman and his osmyrrah of the senses anyday; give me twittering British songbirds and the lap of waves on stony beaches and the deep calls of church bells and that warm stale blast of air as a Tube train approaches and noontime lunches on the village green and winding white roads and Bourton-on-the-Hill and Iwerne Minster and Canons Ashby and Bag Enderby. Give me England, and give me it through the eyes of John Betjeman, and I'm happy beyond words.

As I've been pointing out all week, you can buy this book in Bully's Book Club by clicking on the picture to the right, but as the kids today might say, ZOMG! Twenty-two clams and a month-long wait for delivery? Better instead to zip over the international internet to to pick up the British edition for about eighteen bucks (five to seven bucks shipping) and have it in a couple weeks. If you're sensibly watching your pence and pounds, the paperback edition will be out in about a month and a half for a shade under thirteen bucks. (With the money you save you can pick up this wonderful collection of his poetry, too!)

My little stuffed common sense tells me that much of what I love about Britain is from fiction: it is the England of Agatha Christie or Passage to Pimlico, the London of Michael Bond, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse that made me fall in love with the place, its people and its traditions. What Betjeman shows me is that that fantasy is rooted in fiction, that there were places where the vicar served marmalade sandwiches on the church lawn during fetes, where the postman's knock was a cheery thing, where trains might run to remote villages smack-dab on schedule but only once a week. I generally try not to heavily reference or quote Wikipedia ("The Dictionary You Can Scribble In"), but in researching a few things to say about Betjeman in this review I came across this gem of a sentence: "It has been astutely observed that Betjeman's poetry provides the reader with a skeleton key to a long lost past which he will instantly recognize even if he were never there." Spot-on. But not just his poetry, folks; immerse yourself in this warm and friendly book to find the Britain you always loved. Boil up the kettle, pop down the sliced bread, and get ready to settle back with a little slice of England, even if you can't make the journey.

PS: This is my six hundredth post on this blog. Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

Six hundred?!! I'm impressed. Yay for you!

It's always entertaining to see british culture through your eyes. It reminds me that we've still got one on days that are full of too much american fluff and not enough Doctor Who and I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue.

SallyP said...

This does sound lovely. I must find it, and read it.

Darn it, fish knives are SO difficult to come by.