19.10.2015 by Andrew Nixon
What to Read on Your Sofa: Ghastly Good Taste by John Betjeman
He’s remembered as a cuddly, nostalgic Englishman – the nation’s favourite poet. But as a young man Sir John Betjeman had plenty to say on matters of style and design. And as Nigel Andrew (of the renowned Nigenesss blog) reveals, what he had to say was surprisingly ferocious…
Sir John Betjeman is fondly remembered as ‘the nation’s teddy bear’, a genial and cuddly figure, the most popular English poet since Kipling, a regular guest on TV chat shows, presenter of nostalgic and highly individual TV documentaries, and tireless architectural conservationist, battling especially to save Victorian buildings from the wrecking ball. He was, indeed, the man who saved that Victorian Gothic masterpiece St Pancras station from demolition – hence the statue on the station concourse of Sir John in his mackintosh, clasping his hat to his head and gazing up at that magnificent vaulted roof.
Early in his career, however, Betjeman was no teddy bear. Rather, he was something of an angry young man, a mischievous provocateur who despised, in particular, much of the Victorian and 20th-century suburban architecture that he was later to celebrate with such enthusiasm.
In 1933, when he was a young architectural journalist, Betjeman published an extraordinary little book called Ghastly Good Taste, or a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture. The first edition is something of a collector’s item, but happily it was reprinted in 1970 and several times since, and can be bought online quite reasonably. The 1970 reprint is indeed a better buy than the original, as it contains Betjeman’s marvellously witty and frank Introduction, titled 'An Aesthete’s Apologia', which begins thus:
I wrote this book 38 years ago. I was 26, in love, and about to be married. When Anthony Blond said he would like to reprint it, I thought I had better read it, and he kindly sent me a copy. I am appalled by its sententiousness, arrogance and the sweeping generalisations in which it abounds. The best things about it were the fancy cover, which I designed myself [a typographical extravaganza featuring all manner of barbarous Victorian fonts] and the Street of Taste, or the March of English Art Down the Ages, a marvellous 9ft-long pull-out, drawn by Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh.
Betjeman then treats us to an entertaining 'aesthetic autobiography', tracing the formation of his taste from boyhood up to the date when Ghastly Good Taste was published. This seems to him, he says, the only way to explain the state of mind that led him 'to dash out this book in something like a white-hot fury' (though it has to be said that it is a far more stylish and elegant read than that suggests).
After an opening chapter written in the form of an address to 'One of the Landed Gentry', Betjeman begins the second chapter with this helpful note to the reader:
The first chapter of this book was in the nature of an apostrophe. Those who have understood it need go no further, for the succeeding chapters are but elaborations of the opening theme; those who did not understand it need go no further, since the elaborations will not help them. There is little reason for my continuing the rest of the book beyond pleasing my publisher, and indulging my own pleasure in writing and gaining that money which I cannot come by honestly.
If you do persevere, however – it is a short book and very readable – you will be rewarded by a colourful ragbag of strong opinions, digressions and long quotations, some from architectural historians, but most from miscellaneous literature and letters, including a very funny correspondence between one Lord Ongley and his achingly fashionable architect, Batty Langley. There is even a poem by Betjeman himself.
It is not easy to summarise the argument of this book, but the young Betjeman, for all his go-ahead airs, is clearly nostalgic for the medieval Age of Faith when everything made sense. He has a strong distaste for the ‘pedantry’ of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, finds things improving markedly under the Georgians, delights in Regency architecture, and dismisses much of what comes after, especially the more snobbish and ‘refeened’ elements of Victorian style.
He always preferred ‘honest vulgarity’ to pretension – an element of his taste that never changed, though elsewhere it turned through a full 180 degrees. For example, a reference to ‘the sham classicism of Norman Shaw’ carries the 1970 footnote: ‘Who I now realise was our greatest architect since Wren, if not greater.’ That’s how much Betjeman had changed his mind since his early days.
Betjeman, in his Introduction, describes Ghastly Good Taste as the product of the author’s 'muddled state - wanting to be up to date but really preferring all centuries to my own'.
And it is undeniably a muddle of a book, but a stimulating and glorious muddle, and still great fun to read.
Looking for more great books to read on your sofa? See our recommendations here!
Picture credit top: BBC