Writing letters to the newspapers, it’s been said, is an entertaining but essentially solitary pastime. Perhaps, but I was touched by how many friends contacted me to say they’d seen my recent (very brief) letter in the Times. It was about a poem by John Betjeman, and I wrote it in answer to an enquiry from the founder of the Betjeman Society as to the identity of Pam, the mountainous tennis player in ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’. Did she exist? It’s well known that Miss Joan Hunter Dunn was based on a real person, though certainly not on anyone to whom Betjeman ever got engaged, as happens to the nervous young officer at the end of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’. That’s the poem in which Miss J Hunter Dunn appears, ‘furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun’. In ‘Pot Pourri …’, however, the poet goes one further, and ends by describing confidently the scene and the setting for his eventual marriage to Pam -whoever she may have been. Pamela Mitford? Possible but unlikely: she never lived anywhere near Windlesham.
This was my letter as published:
Sir, I suspect that John Betjeman’s Pam is as much a figment of his fevered imagination as the wedding he conjures at the end of ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’. He imagines “Windlesham bells” ringing out, but the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Windlesham, has only one bell. When my father was rector there in the 1960s, I was sometimes allowed to ring it.
The first Betjeman poem I ever encountered was ‘Hunter Trials’ (probably in O’Malley and Thompson’s Rhyme and Reason) but ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ was the second, and I approved of Betjeman because he had written a poem about the place where I lived. I remember, though, being puzzled that he was wrong not only about the bells but about the architecture. In the last stanza he imagines himself and Pam processing up the ‘Butterfield aisle, rich with Gothic enlacement’, but Windlesham Church was neither built nor restored by Butterfield: it was enlarged, in 1874, by Ewan Christian in a notably plain and unadorned style. At the age of fifteen, I had already been to All Saints, Margaret Street in London (rather to my father’s alarm) so I knew what a Butterfield church looked like, and it certainly did not look like Windlesham.
The village of Windlesham is described in Pevsner’s Surrey thus:
On the Berkshire border, half heath and half meadows. Big C19 houses and a busy nest of Victorian brick boxes on the former; sleek old farms on the latter, which is almost the first true countryside on this bearing coming out of London.
It still has the feel, in parts, of an old Surrey village. Its roads have names like Pound Lane, Updown Hill and Snow’s Ride. This commemorates the infamous highwayman, Captain Snow, who used the local Pelican Inn as his base. (The Pelican is now Woodcote House School, where I began - for two terms between school and university - my teaching career.)
Did Betjeman have any particular connection with Windlesham? Not that I know. I suspect in fact that he chose the village both because its name conveniently rhymed with ‘Pam’ and, more significantly, because of its dactylic sound: dum-diddy. This is the key rhythmic feature of the poem. From ‘pram in the …’ onwards, phrases like ‘whizzing them …’ ‘size of her …’ and words like ‘slippery’, ‘bountiful’, ‘mountainous’ and ‘arrogant’ are all dactyls. They give the poem its momentum.
A friend who contacted me after reading my letter in the paper recalled how easy it was to parody Betjeman. That’s true, of course, and while I was still at school I memorized a splendid parody published in the then infant Private Eye.
Lovely lady in the pew
Goodness, what a scorcher, phew!
What I wouldn’t give to do
Unmentionable things to you!
If old God is still up there
I’m sure He wouldn’t really care,
I’m sure he’d say a little lech
Never really harmed old Betje.
I have never accepted the argument that good poets are literally inimitable: in a way, their very distinctiveness makes them easier to parody. Put this to the test: listen to Dylan Thomas reciting ‘Chard Whitlow’, Henry Reed’s definitive parody of Four Quartets. Betjeman, too, was a good parodist and perhaps it’s one of his strengths that he can easily wrongfoot his readers, leaving us unsure whether or not we are missing a joke.
‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ is itself a good example of what I mean. It’s perhaps a more serious poem than appears at first, paying an oblique homage to T.S. Eliot (who, remarkably, had taught Betjeman at Highgate Junior School). The gauche narrator who hopes to catch a glimpse of the Amazonian Pam is an adolescent Prufrock, washing his face in a bird bath before deciding which path he dare take. Prufrock, indeed, seems a kind of ghostly presence stalking Betjeman’s writing at this time: after all, both title and opening line of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ – “Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn” gesture towards ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
Betjeman insists we pay attention to the title of his poem too. ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ derives from a once-popular book of the same name. That book survives now, as its subtitle ‘The Classic Diary of a Victorian Lady’ suggests, as a record of an earlier, gentler age. Betjeman’s poem does something similar. Published in 1940 at the start of the War, it accumulates remembered details of youthful summers from a suddenly vanished world: the ambiguous ‘miles of pram in the wind’, the unsettling horses’ hooves, the cheap Players’ Weights cigarette packet trodden into the sandy gorse track. Is it good to rake up these memories at such a time? Potpourri itself reminds one of Eliot’s ambivalence about memory at the start of Burnt Norton:
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Still, scents and shrubs overwhelm Betjeman’s trespasser. The ‘coco-nut smell of the broom’ draws him towards the ‘remarkable wrought-iron gates’ and ‘over the boundary’. He steals into the exclusive world of stockbroker-belt Surrey: it’s a world hidden behind gorse, conifers, above all behind rhododendrons. ‘Lucky the rhododendrons!’ sighs the love-lorn poet when Pam, ‘full of a pent-up strength’, swipes at them with her tennis racquet. He knows he’s no match for her, but he can still dream:
Over the redolent pinewoods, in at the bathroom casement,
One fine Saturday, Windlesham bells shall call,
Up the Butterfield aisle, rich with Gothic enlacement,
Licensed now for embracement,
Pam and I, as the organ
Thunders over you all.
‘Redolent’ not only echoes the dactylic sound of ‘petulant’ in the previous line, it recalls the scents and memories evoked in the opening lines of the poem and in its title. But the rest of this last stanza offers an unexpected rebuff to all those who have despised the speaker for his hopeless and inappropriate passion for Pam. They (we) will have to sit and watch as he, the seven-stone weakling, walks triumphantly up the aisle with his Charles-Atlas like bride. Betjeman doesn’t expect his readers to take any of this seriously, of course. Though it is a poem mixing memory and desire, it is also a fantasy enjoying its element of self-parody: no serious poet would write a serious poem with such tortured rhymes as rhododendrons / Hendren’s or enlacement / embracement.
Betjeman’s whole persona showed him to be a master of self-parody. He loved a joke against himself. Since, indeed, he contributed to Private Eye from its very earliest days (he was the original Piloti, writing the architecture column ‘Nooks and Corners’), it would not surprise me to discover he had been author of ‘Lovely lady in the pew’, the spoof that caught my eye while I was still a schoolboy, living in Windlesham.
[illustration: Windlesham Church, c.1970. Artist: Doreen Barlow
My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due to be published by Lutterworth Press later this month.