Radio Valerie Grove
‘Before I snuff it, the whole Boiling will be bricked in.’
Philip Larkin’s threnody for rural England, the poem ‘Going, going’, was published in 1972 in his collection High Windows.
‘The whole Boiling’ was a perfect idiom. How sickening, 45 years on, to see the still deadly threat to London which suffers from Boris’s mayoral legacy: a forest of vacant towers.
And how agreeable to hear Betjeman’s voice again in Patrick Wright’s Radio 4 series, The English Fix. A N Wilson, Betjeman’s biographer, spoke for JB, deriding ‘the plansters’, and lamenting the miserable consequences of living with brutal buildings that arrived in the ‘second Blitz’, money being the sole motive. ‘Money, motorways and shopping malls have wrecked England,’ said Wilson. ‘And the greatest crime that has been committed is the degrading tower block.’
Lines from Betjeman’s poem ‘Inexpensive Progress’ – ‘Bestride your hills with pylons, O age without a soul’ and ‘Let all things travel faster, Where motor-car is master’ (from High and Low, 1966) – were quoted. For balance, architectural historian Gillian Darley dared suggest that Betjeman was guilty of simplification, even a bit lazy sometimes. Bombed Plymouth, for instance, needed urgent reconstruction, as she pointed out, especially in housing, and JB was rather more focused on the wrecking by motor vehicles of his neighbouring Wantage. But for most of us, JB still wins the debate.
Wright’s English navel-gazing began in his earlier series, which featured the National Trust, Chesterton and Cobbett. The recent series started with Orwell and his old maids bicycling to Holy Communion in the morning mist, from his ‘Lion and Unicorn’ essay of 1940, and ended with two more authors: Robert Winder, author of The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness, and Sir Roger Scruton, author of England – An Elegy, which he originally intended to call England – An Obituary.
Scruton moved to a Wiltshire farm he calls ‘Scrutopia’ to escape the ‘constant negativity about this country’ he found in academe. He broadened out the rural/ urban argument to contrast EU legislation vs the ‘higgledy-piggledy humanity of English common law’.
And he ended by declaring that it is now acceptable to praise England: let us all hope he is right. The Oldie’s founding editor, Richard Ingrams, compiled an anthology called England in 1989, and wrote a life of Cobbett. This magazine’s current Editor, who is omniscient, wrote in 2010 the definitive How England
Made the English. Radio 4, currently reviving dear old Horace Rumpole, that inveterate reciter of English verse, seems to be batting for us.
Charlotte and Lillian, a 15-minute sitcom written by Kat Sommers and Holly Walsh, features Miriam Margolyes as Lillian, a crabby old trout visited by a young girl volunteer working for an old people’s charity. The upward inflections and condescending manner of Charlotte (Helen Monks) are guaranteed to infuriate Lillian (‘I’m an actress, darling’) and so is Charlotte’s habit of forever staring at her phone.
When the phone emits its bird trill, Charlotte tells Lillian, ‘Sorr--eee! It’s my phone – we have mobile phones now?’
‘I know what a mobile phone is,’ snaps Lillian. ‘I’ve got three of the BASTARDS in that drawer.’
This is one of the better new Radio 4 programmes green-lit by Sioned Wiliam, commissioning editor of comedy, who is altogether a good egg. She helped to create the Barbara Pym Society in 1992, and befriended Pym’s sister Hilary. Then, when Hilary died, and Barbara Pym’s library was sold in 2005, Sioned went to the auction and snapped up a copy of Larkin’s High Windows, signed ‘from Philip to Barbara’. (It was Larkin, you recall, who, along with David Cecil, resuscitated Pym when she had been deemed too old-fashioned to publish, by writing about her in the Times Literary Supplement.) And so, Larkin to Larkin, we draw the full English circle.