Betjeman by A N Wilson - review by Francis King

Francis King

The Nation’s Favourite Only Child



Hutchinson 360pp £20

Even in John Betjeman’s centenary year, journalists still constantly refer to him as ‘the nation’s teddy bear’. But, as this lively biography demonstrates, a better description would be ‘the nation’s favourite only child’. Like many an only child, Betjeman throughout his life craved to be pampered and petted and, above all, noticed. To achieve the first two of these objectives he deployed an irresistibly self-mocking charm. To achieve the third he cultivated the sort of harmless eccentricity that, even in his adult years, had him carrying around, as his inseparable companion, a teddy bear called Archie.

Betjeman’s family was prosperous. But unfortunately they were ‘in trade’ – their money coming partly from the sale of the ‘Betjemann (sic) Patent Tantalus’, designed to prevent thirsty domestics from slurping their employers’ sherry or Scotch. At that period to be in trade was a social stigma. From his early

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