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.