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Talking Trains with John Betjeman


The older I get, the more I like John Betjeman, especially his prose, and particularly Trains and Buttered Toast, an anthology of his radio talks, mostly from the thirties, forties and early fifties. The subject matter is varied, but his enthusiasms are apparent: Victoriana, seaside towns, great British eccentrics, churches. Despite his campaigns to preserve old buildings, he was never political, but portrayed the small details of everyday life which gave him pleasure – and the things which aroused his ire. His cuddly teddy bear image belies his sharp wit, and he can be quite scathing about things (and people) he doesn’t like.
He hated the word nostalgia, but there seems to be an element of it involved in many of these pieces, for the world he grew up in had changed, and he looked back longingly at the values and lifestyle of that earlier age. Life has altered even more since these short essays were first aired. Take Back to the Railway Carriage, broadcast in March 1940 for the BBC Home Service, in which he sings the praises of our railways. “If you want to see and feel the country, travel by train,” he tells us. According to him:
Roads are determined by boundaries of estates and by villages and other roads; they are shut in by hedges, peppered with new villas, garish with tin signs, noisy with roadhouse …railways are built regardless of natural boundaries and from the height of an embankment we can see the country undisturbed, as one who walks along an open footpath though a field. Roads bury themselves in the landscape. The railways carve out a landscape of their own. .. Railways were built to look from and look at. They are still pleasures for the eye.
And he adds:
But the greatest gift the railways give to us is the proper management of time. Of course there are expresses which will hurtle you from place to place in no time. But the others – no longer the mania for getting from one town to another volleying along a tarmac road at sixty miles an hour, but a leisurely journey, seeing the country, getting to the place much sooner and much more comfortably in the long run and with the pleasant discipline of having to catch a train at a stated time. And if the train is a bit late, what matter?
Betjeman wrote this long before the closure of branch lines, the destruction of ornate Victorian stations, and the development of high-speed trains. He ddidn’t like the ‘new, smart jazz expresses’ with cocktail bars and stifling heat. No, what he enjoys is ‘an old, bumpy carriage with a single gas light in the ceiling’, posters of holiday destinations on the walls, and a rack for ‘Light Articles Only’. I’m not old enough to remember gas lights, but I do recall the pictures of mountains, hills and seaside towns, the luggage racks made from thick cord netting, windows that pulled down to provide fresh air, and doors with handles rather than electronic buttons.
He throws in comments about railway architecture, passengers and staff, as well as a tribute to Bradshaw, guru of Victorian travellers, who produced railway timetables, maps and information about the towns whre the trains stopped. In addition, there are some lines from Edward Thomas’ wonderful poem, ‘Addlestrop’, where Betjeman writes about the wonderful silence of country stations, which is something you don’t come across these days, with all those pre-recorded messages telling you not to smoke, not to leave luggage lying about, to stand well back from the platform edge, and how many carriages make up each train. Once on the train there is no peace, because there are all kinds of beeps and messages about ‘station stops’ and the name of your train manager. And don’t get me started on the sound of computers being turnrd on and off; other people’s music which can be heard all over the carriage, even though they are wearing head phones; the ringing of mobile phones, and the shouted conversations as people communicate on these devices.
How Betjeman would have hated modern train travel. But he would, I think, have been delighted to know that after many years out of print, a reproduction of an 1863 Bradshaw’s Handbook, a Victorian guide to Britain’s railways, has been issued, largely as a result of Michael Portillo’s TV programmes, ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, of which I am a huge fan. Like Betjeman, Portillo improves with age, and his view of our railways is as quirky as that presented by the poet. Interestingly, Betjeman’s talk was intended for broadcast in November 1939 to mark the centenary of Bradshaw’s first railway guide, but went out later than planned.
Oh dear, I was going to write a much more general post on the entire book, not a look at one essay and my thoughts on trains. And the tenses are all to pot, because it’s been thundering, and has started again, and I’m phobic about storms, and have to keep turning the computer and radio and lights off, so I shall publish it as it is, and maybe tidy up the grammar later. By the way,  I’ve posted this for the Essay Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie K, and if you’ve never read any of Betjeman’s prose you’ve missed a real treat, and this book is a good place to start, so do, please,  give it a try.
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I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

10 thoughts on “Talking Trains with John Betjeman

  1. It's the kind of thing you can dip in and out of. All the pieces are quite short, a lot of them are about places – seaside towns and tourist spots, and it would be interesting to compare them then and now, and there's a nice essay on wartime reading.

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  2. Not only have I not read his work, I've never heard of him! Thanks for bringing Betjeman to my attention – he goes on the to-read list. 🙂 I also fixed your links on the challenge page and will be adding this review to the list.

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  3. Carrie, he was a Poet Laureate, but was very 'British' and may not be that well known elsewhere, and is probably not to modern tastes. He wasn't a ground-breaker, he stuck mainly to traditional poetic forms, with strong rhythms and rhymes. I hated his poems when I was young, but the older I get the more I like them. He looked like a cuddly teddy bear and campaigned to preserve old buildings, churches, railways, the countryside etc. He died in 1984.

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  4. Ooh hello from another Betjeman fan! I love Betjeman for his thoughts on architecture and England but I don't know his poetry anywhere near as well as his essays and scripts. 🙂

    I live in Leeds and last year at the Leeds Film Festival they screened a documentary that hadn't been shown since the 1960s about the town, it was so strange to see a hero wandering around streets I know rather than his southern villages and Metroland.

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  5. Alex, I never liked him when I was young – he wasn't my idea of a poet at all! But the older I get, the more I like his poems, and the more I can find in them and relate to. His prose writing is really interesting. It must have been wonderful to see him on film – and to watch Leeds as it was some 40 years ago.

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  6. Don't change a thing. I so loved this. Heartfelt and real. Thank you.

    It's funny. I'm not much nostalgic about the past in the US, but I ache for the old days in England. I'm always happy when bloggers post pictures or write about the still beautiful English countryside because I have read of all the changes, and I feel such sadness. Just last night in Corduroy Mansions:
    “Why do we tolerate having the worst train service in Western Europe? And one of the most expensive ones in the whole world?”
    “Because we privatised the railways. The French and the Germans warned us. They said, 'It's not going to work.' And we ignored them, and look at us now. Dirty trains. Not enough seats. Nowhere to put your luggage.”

    I fear Betjeman would cry.

    I must get this book.

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  7. Nan, Betjeman would cry. I like trains, but the service leaves a lot to be desired, and when things go wrong – whether it is vandalism or some kind of fault – there never seems to be any contingency plan, and communication with passengers is virtually non-existent.

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