Early March Roundup

–Valerie Grove writing in The Times reviews BBC’s recent rerun of John Betjeman’s program Metroland which was originally broadcast 50 years ago (1973).  Grove had interviewed Betjeman about then when she must have been a cub reporter at the Evening Standard, and she recalls visits with him to his boyhood home in Highgate as well as to Metroland itself where they looked in at Grim’s Dyke a large house which features in the film (“the half-timbered Norman Shaw house where WS Gilbert had lived. In Metro-land, Grim’s Dyke was Betjeman’s suburban prototype: tall brick chimneys, gabled windows, leaded lights, lawns and rhododendron walks.”) Here’s an excerpt from her article:

Metro-land was the best of Betjeman’s TV films, and a revelation. Between 1920 and 1940, the ancient villages, manors and farmlands in Middlesex and Hertfordshire had been seized on by the railway and Messrs Wates, Wimpey & co, to build “homes fit for heroes” — 1,500 a week in Greater London alone. In 1938 you could buy a £479 semi for a down-payment of 11s (55p), until expansion paused under the Green Belt Act.

From London’s hinterland sprang Michael Frayn, Julian Barnes (first novel, Metroland); also Elton John, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger. From one pair of suburban schools, Harrow County, came Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and Clive Anderson.

But suburbia was always patronised. George Orwell wrote of “Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley”, identical to innumerable others with houses named “The Laurels, The Myrtles, The Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue”. Evelyn Waugh hated his first address in Golders Green. Kingsley Amis scorned the ersatz name of Norbury, his childhood suburb in south London. When Eleanor Bron returned from Cambridge to her parents’ semi in Edgware, she felt like Alice: she “could hardly squeeze through the door-jambs”. Claustrophobic, conventional, the suburbs were a place to escape from.

Betjeman understood this. He could fondly mock the pretensions of suburbia, the parades of little shops. But such was his boundless enthusiasm for architecture, he wanted to share with everyone the decorative details of ironwork, balustrades, stained-glass motifs of rising suns. Metro-land brilliantly captured that. Some suburbs were indeed “frankly hideous,” wrote James Richards, editor of the Architectural Review. But as JB Priestley had said, they made people moderately happy. Meanwhile, by the time of Betjeman’s film, drab blocks of grey concrete were already springing up all over Metroland. Now, they’re vandalised and graffitied. If he were here, Betjeman might murmur, echoing Christopher Wren: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

I would agree with her that this is the best of several films Betjeman made for the BBC.  It is still fresh and enjoyable.  BBC has it posted for streaming on BBC iPlayer until March 25.  Here’s a link. A British internet connection is required.

–Another article in an earlier issue of The Times features an opening paragraph that prominently refers to a  Waugh novel in connection with recent news about the Scottish Nationalist Party:

In Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War Sword of Honour trilogy, the Scottish nationalists are a tiny fringe group of anti-English plotters living on remote islands in draughty castles. They are dotty dreamers, high on romantic tales of Jacobitism and Bonnie Prince Charlie. There was a darker side to it in real life: the wartime nationalists also dreamt of a German invasion because it would mean Britain’s defeat and dissolution.

Waugh was writing about that period from the perspective of the 1950s. Scottish nationalism then was a twee tartan joke — and oh, how unionists laughed.

Until last [month] and the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, unionists hadn’t been doing much laughing for a while. From the 1960s, the SNP advanced steadily until it became, after the launch of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1999, the official opposition and then the government north of the border…

–The Australian paper Toowoomba Chronicle published an interview with British author Alexander McCall Smith which included this exchange:

Q. What book do you reread?

A. There are two writers I re-read. I have re-read Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy many times. The story of Guy Crouchback and his experiences is, I think, Waugh’s greatest work. I also like to re-read E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. These, in my opinion, are amongst the finest achievements in comic art in the English language.

–In its obituary of biographer Philip Ziegler, who died last month, The Daily Telegraph included this:

By [1980] he had completed a biography of Lady Diana Cooper, the beautiful, aristocratic socialite who had bewitched Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s – she was the inspiration for Waugh’s Mrs Stitch – the only book Ziegler published during the lifetime of its subject. “She had no doubt that it must be,” Ziegler explained in the foreword to Diana Cooper (1981), “and was indeed amazed that any other idea should have occurred to me.”

Even though “the wrong Lady Diana”, as she latterly styled herself, was possessed of total recall, Ziegler conceded that the enterprise had not been without difficulties, and pressed ahead pretending that the problem of a still-living subject did not exist, never asking himself what she would think when eventually she read the book.

–The Irish Times recently ran a story about the most frequently borrowed library books in Ireland.  This notice was near the end of the story:

A LGMA [Local Government Management Agency] spokesperson said many of the most borrowed ebook and audiobook titles reflected novels that had proven popular across special literary social media accounts like Bookstagram and Booktok including The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Waugh [sic] by Taylor Jenkins Reid; The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley; and the young adult title We Were Liars by E Lockhart.

A search on Amazon.co.uk produced the book’s correct title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

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