I Once Pho­tographed... John Bet­je­man

The Oldie - - NEWS - Granville Davies

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.

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