Public Activities


Jad is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute of English in London University's School of Advanced Study

He is a  Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, has an  MA in Victorian Studies from University of London and a BA from the University of  Sussex.

His long-term academic preoccupation is a large study called 'Decadent Women: Lives of the Lost Generation'

His academic publications include:

The 1890s Woman in The Edinburgh Companion to Fin-de-Siecle Literature, Culture and the Arts Edinburgh University Press 2018

Menie Muriel Dowie: The 'Modern' Woman of Choices English Literature in Transition September 2015

Feminist Solidarity in the Life and Work of Ella Hepworth Dixon The Latchkey vol 5 (summer 2013) http://www.oscholars.com/Latchkey/Latchkey5/5home.htm

The Drowning of Hubert Crackanthorpe and the Persecution of Leila Macdonald English Literature in Transition vol. 52 no 1 2009 pp.6-34

William and Edna Clarke Hall:  Private and Public Childhood “Your Child For Ever” English Literature in Transition vol. 49 no 4 2006 pp.398-417 

Gabriela Cunninghame Graham: Deception and Achievement in the 1890s English Literature in Transition vol.50 no 3 2007 pp.251-268

Several Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries including ones on Ethel Colburn Mayne and Coulson Kernahan and a group entry on 'The Rhymers' (2006-7)

Kipling's Dilemma: Decadent or Hearty? The Kipling Journal vol 82 no 325  2008 pp.9-27

Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullick
Women's Writing vol  11 no 2 2004 pp.324-328

Essays on Decadence English Literature in Transition vol 51 no 2 2008 pp. 225-228

Citizen Moore: An American Patriot?
The Political Quarterly vol 79 no 1 2008 pp 133-136

Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape
The Political Quarterly vol 80 no 1 2009 pp 149-51 

'Let our fame be great' Jurneys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus
 The Political Quarterly vol 83 no 1 2012 pp 180-2

John Evelyn Barlas, A Critical Biography: Poetry, Anarchism and Mental Illness in Late-Victorian Britain
(by Philip Cohen) in the academic online review forum Review 19 (www.nbol-19.org) Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Jad has been assisted in research by grants from the British Academy, the Scouloudi Foundation and the Authors' Foundation


'The Race Fault-line in Pioneer Women's Suffrage Nations' as part of the Race, Female Suffrage, and Parliamentary Representation in the Global South History and Policy event at the Palce of Westminster 9 February 2018

'"Yesternight" The Alexandrine and Memory in Dowson's Cynara Poem' Decadence and the Senses conference Goldsmiths College 10 April 2014

'Tony Benn - The Making of a British Radical' at the institute for British Studies in Austin, Texas on 26 October 2012.  Published as 'Tony Benn' in Irrepressible Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain ed: Wm Roger Lewis, I.B.Tauris 2013 pp.322-36

'The Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender: Money as the Measure of Evolutionary Success' Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London 12 July 2012

'Kipling - A Post-decadent Imperialist?' at the Rudyard Kipling - An International Writer conference, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London 21 October 2011

'Feminist Solidarity in the Life and Work of Ella Hepworth Dixon' at the Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism conference, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London 17 September 2011

'Ménie Muriel Dowie - the Modern Woman of Choices' at the Women Writers of the Fin-de-siècle conference, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London 28 June 2010

‘A semi-repressed sex maniac’? – Gandhi’s Experiments in Chastity’ Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London 23 March 2010

‘The Drowning of Hubert Crackanthorpe and the Persecution of Leila Macdonald’ at The Crime, Violence and the Modern State conference, Herzen State University, St Petersburg, on 17 May 2009

‘Solidarity and Eugenics in the life and Work of Ménie Muriel Dowie and Ella Hepworth Dixon’ at the Institute of English Studies and BAVS Victorian Popular Novelists conference School of Advanced Study, University of London on 11 September 2009

‘Decadent or Hearty? Kipling’s Dilemma’ at the Kipling Society at the Royal Overseas League on 11 April 2007

‘The Lives of Gabriela: Deception and Achievement in the 1890s’ at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Narrative and Auto/Biographical Studies Neglected Narratives and Untold Stories inaugural conference, 20 October 2006.

‘Girls and the Late Victorian Artists’ Oxford University fin-de-siècle seminar 4 November 2004 

'Absinthe in Art from Manet to Picasso' Institut Français 15 January 2004

'Daniel Mendoza and the Jewish Boxing Tradition' at the Jewish Museum, London, 27 January 2002, in events commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Bevis Marks Synagogue



The Life and Times of Stella Browne: Feminist and Free Spirit

Lesley A.Hall; I.B.Tauris

For decades following the First World War, the only person arguing for the unqualified legalisation of abortion was the ‘aggressively unfashionable’ Stella Browne.

It was typical of Browne to make no pretence at objectivity, she advanced the notion that an individual woman had the right to bear or not to bear a child. This was quite above any argument about whether a woman could afford to have a baby or whether it was eugenically desirable that she should. Browne rejected half-hearted compromises such as abortion only for unmarried mothers or raped woman, because ‘the majority of enforced and unwilling conceptions take place within the marriage tie…Not abortion but forced motherhood is the crime.’

Stella Browne was loud and demonstrative and not universally loved. Colleagues such as Dora Russell were ambivalent about abortion because ‘we were trying to get birth control on the way and we didn’t want a disturbance to our work,’ but she did honour Browne’s intransigence, ‘no chairman on earth could get her to sit down.’ Lesley Hall, in a work of exemplary archive research, recounts the underhand means by which Browne was relegated by her enemies within the movement, so her radical ideas did not embarrass the progressives.

Her ability to put herself in the picture comes across most clearly in her statement to a parliamentary committee on abortion in 1937: ‘I have - I say this as a matter of public duty - the knowledge in my own person that, if abortion were necessarily fatal or injurious, I should not now be here before you.’ She had thus publicly confessed to a crime many considered to be murder.

Browne, when a young librarian before the First World War, had joined the group around the subversive journal The Freewoman, set up by Dora Marsden and other suffragette activists to address issues of sexuality. These were not being addressed by the leadership of the suffragettes, who suffered as much as the rest of society from what Browne called ‘sexophobia - the ignorance of and prejudice against the physical side of sex.’

Hall shows how Stella Browne advanced the new forms of sexual knowledge being explored by her friend Havelock Ellis, among others, by marrying them to a feminist tradition. Browne wanted women to enjoy the same sexual freedom as men, and anyway argued that there was ‘probably a far greater variation sexually among women than among men.’ To make such comments in 1912 was an assault on every established notion of gender difference in sexual behaviour.

Soon she was a speaker for the pro-contraception Malthusian League, and was later active in the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. Her landmark paper The Sexual Variety and Variability of Women of 1915 was supported by examples from the emotional and sexual life she led as a bisexual ‘sexual epicure.'

She wrote of non-vaginal sex including, ‘the most varied, and even perverted, sex experience’ and she was not above a nod to S&M: ‘the pleasure in either inflicting a certain degree of pain on the beloved one, or suffering a certain degree of pain from them…’ Instead of considering it a dangerous or shameful practice, she saw masturbation as just another component in a healthy sex life.

Browne experienced disappointments which showed that ‘gay boyfriend syndrome’ is not new. She loved the sandal-wearing, feminist-supporting, sometimes bisexual men in her circle, but lamented they could not give ‘the aggressive warm life quickening ardour and dash and aggressiveness that are so intoxicating in a lover.’

Despite her lively personal life, Stella Browne was outwardly a spinster, living in rooms with her mother and sister, doing low grade civil service jobs, reviewing and writing for small circulation magazines and translating. Like so many activists, she was no intellectual and no analyst: she was not interested in seeing all sides of a situation, but in putting her own established views across clearly and forcefully. She was ‘untidy, careless about her looks and appearance;’ her cover picture shows her looking like a tired housewife.  Tired she certainly was. She just went out and did it, from Farnham to Liverpool to the Rhondda Valley and Durham, she stumped around the country year after year, putting out the message. She joined, then left, the Communist Party but continued talking on ‘synthesising the theory and practice of birth control with Socialist principles,’ and on the far more popular practical lectures ‘for women only.’ She never overlooked that social progress requires economic progress, arguing that every household should have its own sanitary arrangements and a constant supply of hot water. ‘It is not surprising that a woman with no bathroom and, of course, no separate bedroom, nor any decent provision for privacy in her home, should fail to apply the pessary.’

As she aged she became, if anything, more daring. In jaw-droppingly radical statements she denied a universal maternal instinct, ‘there are women to whom a man, or more than one man, mean more than any child.’ She argued that the need for sex is quite independent of reproductive function; and approved a suggestion that in the future technology would allow lesbians to have babies by ‘artificial fertilisation.’ In 1935 the Sex Reform Group with which she was strongly associated published its manifesto (which they called a ‘memorandum’) including legal abortion, birth control, voluntary sterilisation, the simplification of divorce laws, better education and treatment for VD; the legalisation of homosexuality; the destigmatisation of the unmarried mother and the illegitimate child; better sex education and a recognition of masturbation as normal behaviour. The extent to which all these attitudes are now mainstream is the extent to which particularly Stella Browne argued for them through years of repression.

She died in 1955, in much reduced circumstances, 12 years before David Steel’s act which legalised abortion in some circumstances, though it did not, as Stella Browne would have wished, give women an absolute right to choose.

As Hall admiringly notes, she may have been ‘the highly neurotic Miss Browne’ to other activists, but unlike her detractors she neither became a Tory nor converted to Roman Catholicism nor got married to a man well able to support her, ‘or in any way reneged from her existing principles.’ She was a wonderful woman who well deserves this excellent biography.

Guardian 19 March 2011

One of Life’s Lieutenants

Evelyn Sharp: Rebel Woman, 1869-1955 by Angela V.John Manchester U.P. 

Unfinished Adventure: Selected Reminiscences from an Englishwoman’s Life by Evelyn Sharp Faber and Faber

Evelyn Sharp was a journalist when the profession was being opened up by women; a suffragette in the Edwardian period; a pacifist in the First World War; an aid worker in Germany in the 1920s and a reporter from the famine-struck Soviet Union after the revolution.

She was also a prolific writer but it is her own life which is of more interest than her work, which makes it apposite that Faber should republish her 1933 memoir Unfinished Adventure at the same time that Angela John is bringing out her well-researched biography, Rebel Woman.

Sharp herself thought the most important adventure in her life was the first: the escape from the suffocating bosom of the household: ‘It is family affection, not the want of it, that enslaves the man and woman in the home,’ she wrote.

With £5 saved from her dress allowance and another £5 borrowed from her brother, she ‘ran away from home’ at the age off 24 to become a writer in London.  She lived in a women’s hostel, earned her living by teaching in schools and coaching private pupils, and in the evenings wrote in her curtained cubicle, using the bed for a table and a candle for a light after the gas was turned off at eleven.  She sent a story to the Yellow Book and a novel to the Bodley Head; both were accepted.  The novel, At the Relton Arms, was set in a large family not unlike the one that she had left in Weston Turville near Aylesbury.

She wrote, ‘I knew it was very heaven to be young when I came to London in the nineties,’ and she did indeed grab all the available opportunities.  She attended publisher John Lane’s parties at The Albany, and the Cromwell Road ‘at homes’ of Yellow Book editor Henry Harland who used to call her ‘Darling of my heart!  Child of my editing.’

She became known for her stories for children, writing about girls’ boarding schools before her contemporary Angela Brazil.  Sharp was praised as writing books for girls that ‘dared to be manly’ but as Angela John remarks, she looks beyond the hockey sticks at the gender transition of her girls, moving from home which was dominated by father and brothers, to a female sphere in which different values pertain.

Her leading characters were often disabled and her fairy stories were deliberately subversive, so that the bravest boy is Kit the Coward who understands animals and doesn’t fight like other boys; Sharp’s princess asks why the prince always has to go out into the world to find his bride, can’t the princess do the finding for a change?  

Sharp met the love of her life, Henry Nevinson, in the Prince’s Skating Rink in Knightsbridge where she collided with the accomplished skater.  Angela John does not interrogate this tale of their meeting, but perhaps Nevinson was so frequently at the rink because it gave him an opportunity to engineer encounters with impressionable young women.  Sharp was certainly captivated, ‘he took my hand and we skated off together as if all our life before had been a preparation for that moment,’ she wrote.

Nevinson was a war correspondent and crusading international journalist whose interests ranged from the sufferings of the Albanians to the near slavery of bonded labourers in Angola.  Sharp was 32 when they met, he was 13 years older.  If he was a wolf on the prowl, she was scarcely an innocent lamb; as soon as they were alone she told him, ‘The first time I saw you I knew you wanted something you have never got.’  As Nevinson correctly surmised, this was not the remark of a woman resisting intimacy.  He certainly brought her joy, ‘Oh I am so glad I love some one who could never make me feel ashamed of what I have given him so freely,’ she wrote to him, words preserved because he carefully transcribed them into his diary, the decipherment of which is a major achievement of Professor John in her work on this couple. 

Nevinson was a complex man, the subject of a 2006 biography by John (War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century I.B.Tauris).  He was depressive and his love affairs were a treatment for his melancholy.  His states of mind were exacerbated by an unhappy marriage to another radical writer, Margaret Nevinson.  They had married when they were both young and she was pregnant, and then suffered almost fifty years of unhappy union.  Margaret was a leading suffragist, the first woman Justice of the Peace in London and a Poor Law guardian.  She was treasurer of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League of which Evelyn Sharp was vice president, so there were doubtless a few frosty encounters.

It might be thought less than sororital behaviour to be having sex with the husband of another suffragist, but if Sharp had any comment to make on the morality of the situation it is not recorded.  All three wrote autobiographies, in none is the question of this affair addressed; Evelyn Sharp is notably coy about Nevinson and never refers to Margaret.  The lack of recognition is reciprocated in Margaret Nevinson’s autobiography, Life’s Fitful Fever of 1926 which does not mention Evelyn and scarcely mentions her husband.  Henry Nevinson’s three volume autobiography (he did things on a big scale) mentions both women, but Evelyn many more times than Margaret.

Nevinson had discovered that supporting radical causes put him in contact with progressive women who, as part of their commitment to the modern, did not require marriage before sex.  He was not alone in this, H.G.Well, Edward Aveling and even the sainted Keir Hardie, made the same discovery.  That is not to say their radicalism was insincere, but it is extraordinary how high ideals often run in parallel with personal desires.

Evelyn Sharp was to discover, as so many others have, that a woman who has sex with another woman’s husband can only be one hundred per cent sure of one thing - not of his love, but that she has an unfaithful man on her hands.  He kept seeing his other mistress as well as Evelyn, ‘It is not true that one love drives another out’ he confided to his diary.  Indeed, his chief love was, and remained, the Irish nationalist Nannie Dryhurst.  He did not split with her until 1912, ten years after he had met Evelyn, and described himself at the breach as ‘too unhappy to think or live.’ 

As a suffragette Evelyn Sharp was described by C.P.Scott as ‘the ablest and best brain in the movement.’  When leading activists were jailed for conspiracy in 1912 and Christabel Pankhurst fled to France, Evelyn took over the editorship of the paper Votes for Women.  She was briefly imprisoned twice for suffragette activities and is the most famous of the tax resisters, refusing to pay income tax to a government where she was not represented.  This came to a head during the war when bailiffs in 1915 distrained her furniture, carpets, chairs, books and even her typewriter, leaving only her clothes and bed. Friends bought her goods back when they were sold at public auction.

She was prepared to continue albeit a low-key campaign through the war years as were neither the militant suffragettes nor the constitutional suffragists.  She was, of course, correct: far from being postponed because of it, a franchise for women was achieved during the war.  She realised before most other women’s campaigners that the way forward for the women’s vote was to support adult suffrage, not the vote for women on a property qualification, which would have enfranchised only the relatively wealthy.

Sharp was one of those radicals ‘thrilled at the news of the Russian revolution’ in November 1917 and became a founder member of the 1917 Club.  She hailed Bolshevism as a new order of society, ‘in which no one shall starve and no able-bodied person shall be idle.’  She visited the Soviet Union in January 1922 after civil  war, harvest failures and reckless economic policies had reduced large parts of the country to starvation.  On her first morning she passed a corpse lying face down in the snow.  ‘Before the day was out,’ she wrote, ‘I came to think he was the happiest thing I had seen that day.’

From 1922, she contributed to the daily feature in the Manchester Guardian, ‘on subjects which are special to women’ that became the Women’s Page.  This celebration of women’s journalism seemed progressive, but Sharp had been writing journalism since the beginning of the century, latterly including hard reporting from Germany and Ireland.  Now her work, by virtue of her gender, was to be relegated to a specialist column which, to add injury, was shorter and therefore less well paid than non-women’s page pieces.  This did not seem like progress.

After the war, the celebrity Nevinson and Sharp had enjoyed was eclipsed by that of her brother Cecil, the folk music collector, and Nevinson’s son C.R.W. Nevinson, the war artist.  The couple were finally able to marry in 1933, after Margaret’s death, when Sharp was 63; Nevinson was to die eight years later.

Sharp was one of life’s lieutenants – second in command to the Pankhursts then to the Pethick-Lawrences; for most of her life a mistress not a wife (and not even the most valued mistress at that).  She did not seem cut out for a leading role even in her own life; she was always a little girl in a big family.  It is this that is reflected in the limitation of both these books: Angela John puts in all the information, but Sharp does not herself provide the spark that makes the difference between a biographical subject who comes alive and one who does not – Sharp just does not give enough of herself in her writing, she is always an observer.

Sharp could have given us a powerful book had she told the true story of herself, Nevinson and Margaret but, as she perceptively points out in the preface to her autobiography, she was not courageous.  She had the physical courage to face down mounted police at a demonstration and venture into areas of endemic typhus, but for courage as an artist, her contemporary George Egerton is a better bet from that 1890s cohort of women writers.

Times Literary Supplement 7 August 2009


John Betjemen: New Fame, New Love (John Murray £25.00   ISBN 0 7195 5002 5)  John Betjemen: The Bonus of Laughter (John Murray £25.00   ISBN 0 7195 6095 6)

by Bevis Hillier
The second of Bevis Hillier’s trilogy on one of the greatest twentieth century English poets picks up after Betjeman’s long courtship and clandestine marriage to Penelope Chetwode, whose family would have preferred her to marry ‘somebody with a pheasant shoot’ rather than a penniless journalist.

Family life dominates New Fame, New Love, covering the period 1934 to 1958, though this was a marriage made in the sort of English hell that Betjeman made his very own.  Within a year Penelope had gone off to Berlin to study and John was having an affair with Molly their maid.  In the pattern of their relationship, Penelope made friends with Molly on her return.  They found another maid, a German who for a long time was under the impression that Betjeman’s first name was ‘Shuttup’, as his wife so frequently addressed him thus.  She preferred horses to people, anyway, though other animals were not unwelcome: Snowdrop the goat was allowed to come in and out of their house at will and it was not unusual to find chickens indoors.  When she became pregnant Penelope said distantly, ‘I wish it could be a little horse.’ 

They settled in the Berkshire village of Uffingham, one of several idyllic spots which were to be the setting for scenes such as Betjeman’s feigning terror before his stuffed crocodile;  and conversations about which of their friends would become a knight first (the notion that no one in their circle might be knighted did not occur to them).  Whether interpolating passages of pornography when reading aloud Sir Walter Scott or writing newspaper articles on topics such as ‘dim peers’, Betjeman infected everything with uncontrollable glee

Malcolm Muggeridge remembered how ‘he had a predisposition to melancholy, which led him often into practical joking.  One of the more serious instances of this occurred when he met the Liberal Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, a severe, stuffed-shirt sort of character, on a London street.  John Betjeman fell down in front of him, feigning an epileptic fit, which left the politician helpless and at sea…’  What could be done with such an embarrassment of a man?  This being England, the obvious answer was to make him a National Treasure.

Betjeman was not homosexual, but he was always at his best with a camp coterie and he became a broadcaster through his friends in the Homintern, the network of left-wing homosexuals who exercised a disproportionate power in the arts (and the arts were rather the better for it).  He was a natural for radio, appearing in public as something of a satire on himself:  Betjeman major, Highbrow of the Upper Fifth, full of schoolboyish erudition and mischief.  ‘”Art” was written in poker work across my heart,’ he said, “prose style” was embroidered with raffia on the reverse side of it.’

He was already a popular radio personality before the Second World War during which he did his bit, though he did not sit easily in Senate House, home of the Ministry of Information, ‘I am a bore’ he wrote, ‘but it’s all for the Mother Country.’  He strained the patience even of his firmest supporters such as his boss, art historian Kenneth Clark, who was obliged to stop in an address to ministry staff to say, ‘Betjeman, I shall be obliged if you will remove those bicycle clips from your ears.’  Sadly his wartime book, Information of Use to the Enemy which gave the Luftwaffe guidance on how to find the ugliest buildings, was never written.

He was wonderfully free from theoretical knowledge, a man with no ‘isms’.  One earnest student asked Betjeman to explain his theory of architecture ‘systematically.’  As the poet recounted, ‘I could not remember what my theory had been.  On the spur of the moment I had decided to judge architecture by the criterion of the Seven Deadly Sins.  It seemed as good as anything else, though Lust was a bit difficult.’

Betjeman had to do hack work to keep himself but his best work as a newspaper literary critic is full of brilliant insight: Evelyn Waugh is a good writer ‘because he hates writing’ and so has the minimum amount of words doing the maximum amount of work;  Eliot may be the greatest contemporary poet but ‘his influence has been disastrous, for his mannerisms are easy to imitate,’ so too many bad poets think that writing like Eliot is sufficient.

However, Betjeman was sacked as Literary Editor from Time and Tide by they redoubtable Lady Rhondda because the reviews he commissioned ‘never came in on time, or to length, or about the right books.’ Apart from that, one assumes, everything was fine.

This biography covers his work for the Architectural Review; the famous Shell guides in the 1930s (a way of embracing the nation) and the publication of his first books of verse in the same decade.  By the end of the thirties he was becoming well known but was so anxious Penelope insisted he see a psychiatrist, a side of Betjeman which is ever present amid the joyous humour of this biography.

Betjeman would be ripe for caricature if he did not send himself up so relentlessly with his pitiful longing for athletic girls from good families such as golden-thighed Myfanwy and strong-forearmed Joan Hunter Dunn.  ‘Gosh look,’ he said on first passing Joan in a Ministry of Information corridor, ‘I bet she’s a doctor’s daughter from Aldershot.’  During the Blitz, while others were exercised by more rational emotions of fear or anger, Betjeman confides of his ministry colleague ‘I used to wish desperately for a small wound from a bomb so that she would minister to me.’

When Penelope converted to Catholicism she had an affair with co-religionist Evelyn Waugh though it was hardly blissful, ‘she always laughs when I come’ complained Waugh.  It was at least more fulfilled than Betjeman’s extra-marital excursions with various strapping girls.  He described one failed encounter: ‘With priggishness and self-righteousness, with fear and love, I insisted on doing nothing…And now what have I?  Remorse, internal writhings, detestation of everything here…Sad for her, self-righteous for me, misery for us both.’  He was narrowly stopped from calling one volume of his verse Gloom, Lust and Self-Pity.

Hillier shares delights such as a previously unpublished fragment about the schoolgirl who was to become Lady Stirling which started

‘Pale Pre-Raphaelite Mary Shand

Swung her satchel and waved her hand;

Her every step on the wet Bath pavement

Bound me more in a sweet enslavement’

Betjeman at last found joy in 1951, at the age of 45 with ‘a jolly girl’, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret who was twenty years his junior.  Penelope normally met John’s girlfriends and ‘defanged’ them but Elizabeth, either knowing or suspecting this, refused to meet Penelope and so remained a threat, the situation when this volume ends, to be continued in the next.

Bevis Hillier has devoted twenty-five years of his life to the seventy-eight of Betjeman’s, every living witness has been interviewed, every manuscript source examined and published work quoted.  The result is very lengthy, and another publisher might have slashed ruthlessly to remove descriptions of films Betjemen reviewed or biographies of his friends, but another publisher would have been wrong.  This is a classic in the making with every page evocative of Betjeman’s wistful humour.  It is a book to be read slowly for fear of coming too fast to the end.  

 As nice as Didcot

The years Bevis Hillier has spent writing his three volumes is a biographical feat matched by few and exceeded by fewer: I can think only of Hiller’s former tutor at Oxford, Martin Gilbert’s great work on Churchill.

Such big books need a lot of life; not just the number of years, but a variety of activities, and a subject with the personality to enliven every page.  Betjeman has that: achieving distinction as a poet, conservationist and television personality.  He also has an interesting personal life, being cordially estranged from his wife Penelope who as a Catholic would not divorce him.  He said of her, ‘I love nobody in the world more; but we just can’t live together.’  Betjeman therefore lived alone or with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.  Lady C has not co-operated with her lover’s biographer and Hillier gallantly refrains from remarks about her, but some of his interviewees felt no such restraint: ‘this enormous and very healthy-looking lady’ is probably the nicest.

Over the last period of his life Betjeman became a national mascot, but Hillier does not gloss over the treasure’s tantrums and the times he was found sitting crying with thoughts of metaphysical gloom.  His GP discloses he once demanded an emergency consultation with her to say ‘I don’t know what to do.  I’ve been too wicked – over Penelope and Elizabeth.  Do you think I’ll go to hell?’ Medical science was momentarily stumped.

There is a good deal of lunch in this book from Lord ‘hot lunch’ Molson (‘only a hot lunch will do’) and Betjeman himself (‘I believe in getting drunk in the lunch hour’) to the family giggles over names for puddings: mangled baby, dead man’s leg, hair-oil and toenails.  Hillier is never a man to keep on the narrative path when there is a joke to waylay him, and why not?  He is, after all, the authorised biographer of a man he can describe as literally crying with laughter at Barry Humphries’ song lauding British spunk which was banned by the BBC; or pondering for a TV documentary of the Holy Land ‘What’s Bethlehem really like?  Is it as nice as Didcot or as big as Wantage?’

Betjeman’s behaviour in his TV work could come from a training programme on how not to make television.  He would turn up at the cutting room with a bottle of burgundy in his hand and a bottle of whiskey in a string bag, clutching his teddy bear Archie and sometimes Archie’s companion Jumbo.  If Betjeman was feeling depressed, the editor would give one of the stuffed toys a ride on the spinning plates of the editing machine and that would cheer him up.  Thus reinforced with alcohol and merriment, did he get down to work and write a commentary?  No.  Obsessed with the fears that critics would lambaste him, that he was going to be found out as nothing but a ‘wax fruit merchant’, he spent hours when he should have been writing scripts, instead penning vituperative reviews about his work and sealing them in envelopes as if saying bad things about himself first were a talisman against the later barbs of critics.  Amazingly, such classics as Metro-land (1973) were the result and Betjeman became the best-known poet since Kipling.

In his place, I would have quoted less parodies from Betjeman’s work and more of Betjeman; Hillier assumes we all have the same familiarity with the poet’s work.  He does, however sprinkle the work with gems, with fragments of Betjeman unused because they were inferior or, like his comments on his parents, too cruel:           And in some gas-lit bedroom did they mate?

And say I was the undesired result?’

Less prolific or popular poets criticised Betjeman for showing ‘no more skill than shown by the men who writes the jingles on Christmas cards…a poet for the Plain Man.’  Hillier demonstrates the laborious technique that went towards the effortless appearance of the verse, not to mention the rewrites and excisions on the valuable advice of Tom Driberg and the less useful words of John Sparrow.

Betjeman and his Victorian Society will be forever connected with the great Doric arch entrance to Euston Station, torn down by British Railways in 1961.  This was a terrible act of vandalism but both conservationists and developers learned from it.  In terms of Betjeman’s biography, he was elevated in the public mind as the leader of the campaign though in fact, as Hillier points out, he kept in the background.  He nevertheless gained the reputation of a battle-hardened veteran which stood him in good stead for the struggles of the future.  Hillier is judicious enough to accuse Betjeman of contributory negligence: he may have been a great catalyst in any campaign, but he ‘lacked follow-through and staying power…He could get the public’s attention but he could not keep it.’  Nor was Betjeman the best committee man: a colleague describes them both making a feeble excuse to escape from a meeting in order to get to a local pub just after opening time, which they left just before closing time.

Including indexes, the three volumes of this life amount to just short of 2000 pages.  Betjeman now has a better biography than many finer poets in the English canon but that is because he had the luck to have a biographer who saw his merit and was willing to put in the necessary time; that isn’t alone a measure of his value as a poet. Inevitably the question arises: is Betjeman worth it? 

In an epilogue Hillier looks at Betjeman’s critics who berate him for not being Eliot (though I would have thought one was enough) and for not being politically committed.  Yet his Anglicanism, conservatism and fondness for the values of the middle class (while mocking them) was certainly evidence of engagement, just not an engagement that was very trendy in the Cold War period.  Betjeman’s vision, ‘safe in a world of trains and buttered toast’ immediately provokes anxiety about the dangers encroaching on that idyll.  ‘My themes are that you’re all alone, that you fall in love, that you’ve got to die,’ Betjeman said: not the reflections of a mere a song and dance man.

Betjeman easily stands up to that archetypal thirties poet MacSpaudl (MacNeice, Spender, Auden, and Day Lewis).  Only Auden is still widely quoted and Spender has one poem generally anthologised.  If Day Lewis (Betjeman’s predecessor as Poet Laureate) did not have a famous son, would even his name still be heard?

Among the post war so-called New Poets, Betjeman can stand his ground against the best of them: Larkin, Hughes, Plath and Gunn.  We can truly say with Clement Attlee ‘Betjeman’s such a relief,’ but a relief from what?  ‘From other poets’ Attlee replied.

A book that takes the subject through a heart attack and stroke before he becomes frozen in Parkinson’s disease, both inarticulate and incontinent, is inevitably less jolly than the previous two volumes.  Yet taken as a whole the work is tremendous fun and what a good biography should be – the next best thing to knowing the man yourself.

No better long life of Betjeman will ever be written (though there is certainly room for a pocket edition).  It is that rare thing, a work of genuine scholarship that makes you laugh out loud, a joy to read.

The Guardian 2 November 2002 & 1 January 2005 


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