Thursday, August 31, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sir B (or C)

Last week we celebrated (well, some of us did) the 100th. anniversary birthday of Sir John Betjeman. No doubt Betjeman himself would have had he been available. In spite of my failing to get to grips with most poetry, Betjeman managed to get my attention. Perhaps it was because he did not write on Homeric lines so I wouldn’t lose the drift, but it was mainly because he wrote of things to which I could relate.

The residents of Slough might not have appreciated his efforts, “ Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn’t fit for humans now,” but most of the rest of us could sympathise with his feelings.

His week was enlivened by one of those literary spats that seem to be the fashion.

Biographer A had written his life story some time ago and now biographer B had just produce a new, and slightly more critical one. The subject, (may we call him C? I know Betjeman begins with a B but I’m sure you will see that calling him B could lead to confusion) is in no position to argue and A now says that B used his book on C as a reference (are you still with me?). B says he didn’t, which does not make a lot of sense.

Even country vicars, before they try to drive their congregations to sleep with a Sunday sermon, usually take a quick gander at the Good Book before setting out, and it seems to me that any biographer would be well advised to glance at any previous work on the subject, in this case C.

I’ve always advocated writing biographies of those long since dead as being the safest practice. Even those who commission “authorised biographies” are seldom tempted to be perfectly truthful and the writer of an unauthorised (and truthful) version is likely to find himself on the wrong end of a law suit. Going back a thousand years or so is much safer, since the subject, his relatives and his lawyers will have lost their enthusiasm for pursuing any injustice you may have done the subject (may we refer to him as C once more?).

But the literary world seems to be prone to the sort of belligerency that we once associated with soccer crowds.

Salman Rushdie, who you will recall, was in a spot of bother with some mullahs a while back, had a little confrontation with another critical writer and, only the other day, the authors of two equally unmemorable volumes arrived in the high court for a ding dong over who pinched what from whom.

Thackeray and Dickens were rivals (or, more accurately, their supporters were) but they never resorted to such public displays and, reverting to Betjeman for a minute (or C, if you must) there is this. He wrote, of a seaside holiday, “Sand in the sandwiches, Wasps in the tea…..”

Now, Noel Coward had written earlier in similar vein, “There’s sand in the porridge and sand in the bed, And if this is pleasure we’d rather be dead,” but he never took Betjeman (C) to court over it.

Perhaps, since writing is now such a competitive sport, it should go on the Olympics roster.

In which case we can look forward to mandatory drug testing for all candidates for the Booker Prize.


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