Why the bracketed second n in Being Betjeman(n)? It denotes the young John Betjemann’s truncating of his too Germanic-sounding surname – one of many impulsive acts that, understandably enough, enraged his deaf, conventionally minded father, Ernest Betjemann, head of a successful ornamental houseware business. Explosive rows between father and son punctuate this unusual and engaging book, and painful they are to read, with both flinging vicious insults while young John’s mother tries desperately to calm things down. One of the worst rows followed Betjeman’s journey to Cornwall to break it to his parents that he had been sent down from Oxford. It is easy to see in these scenes the roots of the guilty feelings that haunted Betjeman all his life and of the troubled relationship between him and his own son.
This is no straightforward biography, however; it is a highly original treatment of its subject, written by a man with first-hand knowledge of ‘being Betjeman’. Jonathan Smith is a writer of plays and novels, with long experience of ‘being’ various people, if only in the sense of imitating their mannerisms: