Thursday, 23 May 2013

John Betjeman's 'Harrow on the Hill' and the Index of Place Names

Harrow on the Hill, High Street, 1956. Photo (c) Dr Neil Clifton. Used under Creative Commons license

Some weeks ago, on what might have been the first really nice day of the year (and they have only occurred here and there ever since - surprise surprise), I went out for a fairly long wander in Chelsea and Kensington. Blinking in the sunlight like some sort of rudely woken nocturnal creature who'd been hibernating for at least six months, I finally found myself at the lovely Slightly Foxed bookshop near Gloucester Road station. I had never been there before, although I knew the name - they are also a small publishing company.

It is hard for me to leave a bookshop without buying something - a fact I am well aware of, and yet I keep going into bookshops. Anyway, this time I left with a used copy of John Betjeman's Collected Poems. I had recently been told that I should look more closely at Betjeman, so he was on my mind.

I knew some of his poems, of course - 'Hunter Trials', 'A Subaltern's Love Song', 'Middlesex' and others. When I looked at this collection, though, I realised that I might finally have found my way in where Betjeman is concerned. With some poets, the door swings open almost immediately and I can enter their work with relative ease - at least as far as enjoyment, if not always full understanding. But with some poets, finding the key, the door, or both can take a long time. This edition of Betjeman's Collected Poems has an index of place names in the poems, mostly places in Britain, many of them in London. Anyone who lives here is likely to have at least an inkling of the resonance and sacredness of places and place names. The fact that an editor had compiled an index of place names in Betjeman's poems showed just how significant they were to his work. I love poetry of place, so I was instantly excited by this index.

This link goes to several of Betjeman's poems of place, but I was especially interested in the first one, 'Harrow on the Hill'.

HARROW ON THE HILL (John Betjeman)

I have never been to Harrow on the Hill, but I used to live on the Harrow Road in west London, which sometimes led to interviewers glancing carelessly at my CV and saying "Oh, so you live in Harrow?". No, I live between Maida Vale and Notting Hill and I've not been farther than Wembley... However, what I really love about this poem is its flow of memory and thought-tangent, beginning with the memories triggered by the physical senses. Betjeman looks at Harrow on the Hill, hears the wind and "the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing", and it takes him somewhere else entirely - to Cornwall, another place dear to his heart. I understand this kind of memory/sense slip; it often happens through sound or smell, or sometimes the way that light glances off a wall or a rooftop.

Betjeman apparently described himself as a far more concrete and literal poet than abstract or metaphorical. The testimony of his poems generally bears this out. However, Andrew Motion says in the foreword to the Collected Poems: "[Things and the names of things] become for him a means of conveying strong feelings that he may well choose not to deliver directly - either because the subjet is especially inaccessible or awkward, or because his poetics require him to deal with 'sensations' rather than 'thoughts'." The poem 'Harrow on the Hill' bears this out quite beautifully, I think.

The photo above is from Harrow on the Hill around 1956. This places it close to the date of the poem, which is from the collection A Few Late Chrysanthemums, published in 1954.


  1. Thanks so much for giving the link to and discussing this wonderful poem. It strikes a deep chord with me. Perhaps because I live in a maritime city, or perhaps because of more youthful experiences along the rugged California, Oregon and Washington coasts and tales from a family of seafarers, or perhaps simply because the poem is so fine. The internal use of alliteration is astonishing and I think will stay with me for a long time. But it's the images themselves which are so strong that I feel I can see, touch, smell and almost taste them. The intertwining of past and present in a nearly seamless blend of immediate experience and memory is tremendous. I love the video with Maggie Smith and friends too.

    1. Yes, I definitely related to this poem in part because of all the maritime imagery. I live a fairly landlocked life in London these days but sometimes when crossing the bridges by Westminster I hear the call of gulls or a very faint sea smell, and the sudden slap of memory and sensation from my seaside childhood can be very acute. Almost like you're instantly in that other place.

  2. really enjoyed that, not read much Betjeman though I'm sure I have a collection of his somewhere, might dig it out! x

    1. Thanks! He is moving and funny in the most understated and English of ways, and I like those authors whose work is suddenly everywhere when you discover the interplay with place.