Days of summer
This week: A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman
Isn’t a bit of fine weather fabulous? It’s uplifting and infectious. There’s a spring in every step. The postman is whistling. The fears of a no-show summer start to recede, all things are possible. Beaches are worth the traffic, blue smoke billows from back gardens and you couldn’t track down a burger-bun in a supermarket for love nor money. The bread-wars that followed the snow in February and March, are a distant memory. The days are at full length long and the little squinting faces on the school children can sniff the holiers on the horizon.
The low sparkling Slaney, the early first-cut silage tractors jamming the roads and an extra sweetness in a strawberry, confirm all we hoped for. Early summer is behaving itself, and perhaps we’re in for a fine one.
In fact, right about now, sandwiched between the French Open tennis of June, and Wimbledon finals of July, one might spot ‘tennis club sweater man’, him that frequents such fine establishments as the Antique Tavern in Enniscorthy or French’s Bar in Gorey, a creation of a long forgotten fashionista, as timely a visitor as the cuckoo or corncrake, but who’s simple plumage requires just a pastel coloured jumper, worn loosely over the shoulders. Ring any bells? Out for a gin on a fine summers evening! Reminds me a bit of one of my all time favourite poems.
A Subaltern’s Love Song captures beautifully a time and place in middle-upper class jolly hockey sticks home counties mid last century England. It has the bounce and faith of new summer romance and the adoration and whirl of falling in love. It does not dare to suggest how wonderful things were ‘back then’, it’s no lament or mental cast backward (and Lord knows Betjeman could flitter old England with his pen when he wished) but it’s time-setting and imagery and sense of contentment just ooze from the page, from every single line. How I’d love to publish the complete poem here, now, but my word count would go through the roof, but the task of reducing it is close to impossible. That said, here’s a sample:
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun, What strenuous singles we played after tea, We in the tournament – you against me!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy, The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy, With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won, I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn .........
The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall, My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.
Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, I can hear from the car park the dance has begun, Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!
Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.
And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said, And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
Reader, please find the poem in it’s entirety, get it on Google and read it aloud, or better still have it read to you. It’s wonderful, joyous and lovely. And, maybe cheekier than we might imagine. I’m not sure but there is very possibly an undercurrent of lost, innocence, shall we delicately say! There are certainly clues aplenty.