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Summoned by Bells (excerpt) -- John Betjeman

Guest poem sent in by Zubaer Mahboob
(Poem #1164) Summoned by Bells (excerpt)
 Walking from school is a consummate art:
 Which route to follow to avoid the gangs,
 Which paths to find that lead, circuitous,
 To leafy squirrel haunts and plopping ponds,
 For dreams of Archibald and Tiger Tim;
 Which hiding place is safe, and when it is;
 What time to leave to dodge the enemy.
 I only once was trapped. I knew the trap -
 I heard it in their tones: "Walk back with us."
 I knew they weren't my friends; but that soft voice
 Wheedled me from my route to cold Swain's Lane.
 There in a holly bush they threw me down,
 Pulled off my shorts, and laughed and ran away;
 And, as I struggled up, I saw grey brick,
 The cemetery railings and the tomb.
-- John Betjeman
The passage is from John Betjeman's autobiographical book of verse "Summoned
by Bells" which, on account of its length (not to mention copyright issues),
is unlikely to feature here in its entirety, but which nonetheless contains
some of Betjeman's most evocative poetry. Betjeman has long been one of my
favorite poets, although I have occasionally wondered why I feel such
affection for a man whose lifelong theme was middle England, and a very
specific soft-focus vision of it. Rereading "Summoned by Bells" after a gap
of several years, it seems to me that it has much to do with a certain form
of Englishness that many of us of a South Asian origin were familiar with at
an impressionable age. Those who picked up the patterns of the English
language from the gentle, civilized pages of Brighter Grammar or Fundamental
English may know what I am talking about, and may even be able to identify,
to some extent, with this harmless infatuation.

This stanza, from the second chapter of Summoned, describes an incident from
Betjeman's childhood in north London during the twilit years of the Great
War.  Although too young to understand its significance, Betjeman can hear
plainly the booming sound of artillery fire coming across the channel from
Poperinghe and Mons. On his way to school, he is taunted by cruel
classmates, who have concluded from his exotic name: "Betjeman's a German
spy/ Shoot him down and let him die." Hence, the circuitous response on the
part of the young schoolboy. A few stanzas later, comedy makes its
appearance. The budding poet is handing over his very first 'anthology' -
boldly entitled "The Best of Betjeman" - to his American schoolmaster for
his review and opinion. This is none other than the expatriate TS Eliot who,
even years later when both were established poets, would refuse to tell
Betjeman what he thought of his juvenilia: "At the time/ A boy called Jelly
said 'He thinks they are bad'/ But he himself is still too kind to say."

On a personal note, last July on a trip to London, I was walking up Swain's
Lane on my way to Highgate Cemetery - there to check out the graves of
George Eliot and Marx among others - and these lines bring back to me with
great immediacy the flavour of the neighborhood. 85 years later, it's still
holly, grey brick, railing and tombs, just the way Betjeman knew it.

Zubaer

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