I Once Photographed... John Betjeman
As a professional photographer with a particular interest in portraiture, back in the 1980s I started a personal project photographing writers. I knew that I wanted John Betjeman to sit for me. So, lacking any better introduction, I simply wrote to him. Much to my surprise, he agreed, and a date and time were fixed in the early December of 1982.
On the appointed day, I arrived at his Chelsea house, complete with lights and camera, and rang the bell. Nothing happened; so I rang again. Still no reply – I sat on my camera case to re-read his letter. No problem: right time, date and place. What could be wrong? I rang again and, in a lull in the traffic, heard Betjeman’s unmistakable voice, crying out, ‘Help, help, help’.
Now I was really worried – had I caused an accident to one of Britain’s great treasures? Should I call the police? An ambulance? What should I do?
Ah yes! Look through the letterbox to see if there was a prostrate form on the floor. But, as I pushed on the letterbox, the door opened – it wasn’t locked. Going inside, I found Betjeman sitting in his chair looking well, but confused.
Why had be been calling out ‘Help’ like that? It turned out that he had, that moment, suffered a stroke which, while not affecting his mind, had left him unable to walk without assistance. Consequently, since his secretary was out, he was unable to come to the door.
I explained the reason for my arrival. It transpired that his secretary had gone out to do some shopping. I offered to sit outside to await her return. But, on learning that I had arrived with a full lighting set-up, he insisted that we start immediately. ‘I do love flash,’ he said.
The shoot was nearly done when his secretary returned, full of apologies for being delayed. ‘Never mind,’ said Betjeman, ‘Let’s have some bubbly!’
I was aware of his liking for champagne, but I wasn’t used to drinking it at eleven o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, three flutes were produced and we all sat round, toasting each other. Then, in the silence, Betjeman said, ‘You come from Tunbridge Wells, don’t you?’
‘I do love flash,’ said Betjeman. ‘Let’s have some bubbly!’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. He thought for a moment, then recited:
Tunbridge Wells on a Lord’s Day morning Rung from rest by the gospel bells Climbs to light through the mist adorning Towers and steeples of Tunbridge Wells.
‘That’s very good, Sir John. Who wrote it?’ ‘I did!’ ‘It’s not in your collected works.’ ‘Tis,’ he said, with a touch of petulance. But it wasn’t, as an exhaustive search of various collected editions soon showed. ‘Well, I still wrote it!’ he said – very definite this time. And so he did. When I returned to Tunbridge Wells, I went to see the resourceful Jean Maldon, reference librarian and historian of the borough. She pointed me to a little book of Betjeman’s poems, published in 1937 by John Murray, entitled Continual Dew. Not a bad memory, I thought, to recall a verse written nearly fifty years before.