The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
Christmas is one of John Betjeman’s most openly religious poems, and one of my favourites. Published in A Few Late Chrysanthemums, in 1954, it combines a heart-warming Victorian Christmas ideal with a very reluctant religiosity.
It’s often said about Betjeman’s poetry that it allows people to identify with feelings they’ve never known or felt, like a kind of twee horoscope. More than that, I think he actively loved what we all like to think we love, too, and he had the skill and background to put it into words for us all to enjoy.
He inaugurated the Nooks and Corners column in Private Eye, which continues to this day. When I was in Manchester, a small row of houses in East Didsbury was torn down after being featured there, which was very sad. He campaigned vigorously against the post-war fetish of tearing down Victorian buildings, often using his popular status to succeed where others failed.
He contributed to the Shell travel guides, so I suppose he must have visited the North of England, but I don’t think he lived there at all. However, anyone born North of the Watford gap should smile at the first lines of the slightly macabre A Shropshire Lad. “The gas was on in the institute / The flare was up in the gym” – though who, born after 1950, say, knows what they mean?
He’s perhaps best known for his admonition of town planners: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough / It isn’t fit for humans now / There isn’t grass to graze a cow / Swarm over, death!”
Betjeman’s poetry is best read aloud: he has an innate understanding of cadence, and is often very funny. Try it!
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!