Sir John Betjeman
Indoor Games near Newbury
In among the silver birches winding ways of tarmac wander
And the signs to Bussock Bottom, Tussock Wood and Windy Brake,
Gabled lodges, tile-hung churches, catch the lights of our Lagonda
As we drive to Wendy’s party, lemon curd and Christmas cake.
Rich the makes of motor whirring,
Past the pine-plantation purring
Come up, Hupmobile, Delage!
Short the way our chauffeurs travel
Crunching over private gravel,
Each from out his warm garage.
O but Wendy, when the carpet yielded to my indoor pumps
There you stood, your gold hair streaming,
Handsome in the hall light gleaming
There you looked and there you led me off into the game of Clumps.
Then the new Victrola playing
And your funny uncle saying
“Choose your partners for a foxtrot! Dance until it’s tea o’clock!
“Come on young ‘uns, foot it feetly!”
Was it chance that paired us neatly
I, who loved you so completely,
You, who pressed me closely to you, hard against your party frock!
“Meet me when you’ve finished eating.” So we met and no one found us.
O that dark and furry cupboard while the rest played hide-and-seek!
Holding hands our two hearts beating in the bedroom silence round us,
Holding hands and hardly hearing sudden footstep, thud and shriek.
Love that lay too deep for kissing –
“Where is Wendy? Wendy’s missing!”
Love so pure it had to end,
Love so strong that I was frighten’d
When you gripped my fingers tight and
Hugging, whispered “I’m your friend.”
Goodbye Wendy! Send the fairies, pinewood elf and larch tree gnome.
Spingle-spangled stars are peeping
At the lush Lagonda creeping
Down the winding ways of tarmac to the leaded lights of home.
There among the silver birches,
All the bells of all the churches
Sounded in the bath-waste running out into the frosty air.
Wendy speeded my undressing,
Wendy is the sheet’s caressing
Wendy bending gives a blessing,
Holds me as I drift to dreamland safe inside my slumber wear.
Yes, I know it’s late again this month. No specific reason such as being adrift in the Baltic like in October, just the mind-blanking zombieness post-sca I described last December. However, this month’s favourite is perhaps more appropriate just one week later in that time between Christmas and New Year as, I imagine, it’s some obscure anniversary of the events it describes.
What I like about this is poem is the beguiling way that Betjeman structures it, as well as the glorious lyricism. The writer leads you through the four different stages of the evening which probably lasted no more than a few hours in total – from travelling in warm anticipation of Wendy’s party; arriving and the party getting underway; the recognition of mutual attraction and (consensual) clandestine clinch with Wendy; and finally returning home and retiring to bed, luxuriating in the warm aftermath of the encounter, “a love that lay too deep for kissing”.
The poem evokes a wistful remembrance of children’s parties in the 20s or 30s where the young guests would arrive in chauffeur-driven limousines and be on frightfully best-behaviour and although it is something one might expect from Betjeman the poem has an unorthodox origin.
The poem was first published in 1947 in The New Statesman, a weekly magazine published in London since 1913, and usually includes a competition inviting readers respond to a challenge – for example (famously), misleading advice that might be offered to visitors to London (winners included trying the famous echo in the British Library Reading Room, or, on boarding a tube train to introduce yourself to, and shake the hand of, every other passenger in your compartment). In 1946 readers where invited to submit a poem about indoor games in the style of John Betjeman and Betjeman himself was so touched by the recognition that he was inspired to thank them for the honor and submitted his own contribution. Thus, Indoor Games near Newbury is meta-Betjeman – his parody of the parodies of his work. Later Betjeman said that he didn’t like the area around Newbury very much but if he had to live there he imagined that one of its few redeeming features might be the quality of any children’s parties.
Joan Hunter Dunne (she even has her own Wikipedia page) and Myfanwy are more famous and celebrated subjects in Betjeman’s work, but for me Wendy is in there with them too even though she was a fiction. And although Betjeman might claim he was writing of children’s parties it would appear to be a teenage party, at a time before teenagers were called teenagers. You aren’t going to get many eight year olds dancing the foxtrot, and having felt him hard against her party frock she was rather keen to experience their own one-on-one version of sardines in the wardrobe.
So why did I come to like it? I encountered Betjeman in a collection I bought many years ago. I knew of his “Metroland” reputation and when I moved to London and started to explore those suburbs and towns along the Metropolitan Line that he writes about I wondered if he was doing them justice. And I was surprised with what I found – not just twee suburbia, but tales of inner cities, of illnesses, of loneliness, of cottage hospital, of suicide.
This particular poem stuck because it evoked a world that was strange to me. I knew of Lagondas, plush limousines they were, but Hupmobile? Delarge? I needed to look them up to find out that they were posh cars too. When I went to a party I walked there, or sometimes went by bus.
And then I heard of his work in saving St Pancras station and the attached Midland Hotel from the fate that had destroyed Euston station, and then he followed in the tracks of the Liverpool Scene and set his poetry to music. His work with the artist John Piper in preserving rural parish churches became more widely known He became Poet Laureate and appeared on television regularly and suddenly was the bees knees. He seemed to be one of the good guys and you half wished he was your “fun uncle” like the one Wendy had.
Since his death he has been recognised as one of the pioneers in the movement to protect Britain’s architectural heritage. In 2007 a bronze statue was erected at St Pancras station in acknowledgement of his contribution to preserving its distinctive style. The statue was commissioned from Martin Jenkins, a British sculptor who has also installed statues commemorating Philip Larkin at Hull Paragon station, Mary Seacole at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, and the wartime women steelworkers in Sheffield.
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Smithfield Market or Barts Hospital then find your way to Cloth Fair. This is one of the remaining residential medieval streets in the heart of London and you’ll see a Blue Plaque on the wall at number 43 indicating where John Betjeman used to live.