Poetry, as a genre, seems to have fallen completely out of fashion. The role of Poet Laureate today has been so diminished as to be almost forgotten.
Can you imagine little Alfie Smith, at his comprehensive academy, telling his career’s teacher that he wants to be a poet when he leaves school? He’d be told to consider a job in digital media or PR.
Sir John Betjeman was arguably our last great poet of note. As a rebellious teen, whose surname had dropped its second “n” to sound less Germanic, he informed his father that he didn’t intend to follow him into business but that he wanted to be a poet – you can imagine how that went down.
In the event his day-job (“Poets don’t make much money”), after being sent down from Oxford for failing miserably to keep up his divinity studies at Magdalen, was journalist but his talent, and passion, was always poetry.
His life, lived well though not exceptionally so – his opinion – has now been brought to the stage in Hugh Whitemore’s evocative new play, Sand in the Sandwiches, starring Edward Fox, which launched its UK tour at the Oxford Playhouse last night.
Fox regales the audience with an utterly charming performance as Betjeman, taking us through his life with a series of anecdotes, in poetry and prose, that are moving, humorous, observational and honest.
Without doubt, Sand in the Sandwiches – the title refers to Betjeman’s idyllic family holidays in Cornwall – is only likely to attract a niche audience who, firstly, know who Sir John Betjeman is (shocking, but I doubt whether many under 40 would remember the name from their school-day English lessons), and, secondly, are interested in either poetry or the poet.
But more than just a monologue – eloquently delivered, as always, by the beautifully spoken Fox – this delightful production is nostalgic about a way of English upper-middle class life that most of us only know through watching period dramas on TV.
Fox walks into the simple set, dressed impeccably in a shades of cream, and sits at a small patio table.
There’s an eco-friendly shopping bag next to him which contains a bottle of wine and a tumbler. He pours himself a glass and begins with a glorious rendition of “A Subaltern’s Lovesong,” that expressed the poet’s burning desire for Joan Hunter-Dunn, a woman who was, briefly, his muse.
Also in the bag, we later see, is Betjeman’s life-long companion, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, a teddy-bear bought when he went up to Oxford in the 1920s and with him when he died in 1984. Archie was the model for Aloysius, Sebastian Flyte’s bear in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.
Fox’s Betjeman casually throws out names that, to us, are part of our literary history, but to him were friends, acquaintances and rivals.
He blames friend Evelyn Waugh for corrupting his wife, Penelope, into adopting the Catholic faith while he lost his CofE convictions as life went on.
He was at school with the actor James Mason and Anthony Blunt; his tutor at Oxford was CS Lewis (“Too tweedy. He disliked me as much as I disliked him”); he corresponded with Lord Alfred Douglas after admiring the latter’s poetry; and attended a swish dinner in London that should have included Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean – except that they were on their way to Moscow after betraying their country.
But also at the party was Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, a childhood friend of Queen Elizabeth and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, who became his lover. “It was love at first sight,” he admits.
Born into the Edwardian period, his father made goods for Asprey, and was appalled when young John announced he wanted to be a poet.
“I knew, ever since I could read and write, that I would be a poet.”
At 14 he wrote a fan letter to Bosie Douglas and was amazed to get a reply. His father was incensed when he discovered the correspondence. “Do you know what sort of a man he is?” he raged at his teenage son.
“A poet?” replied the innocent youth.
Whitemore’s affectionate celebration of Betjeman reveals that Oxford only taught one thing to the young poet. “I learned how not to be a bore.”
He dabbled in homosexuality – as everyone did (apparently) – “Everyone was queer at Oxford in those days. It was a passing adventure for most young men.” Later, he married, but the relationship became strained after her conversion to Catholicism.
Sand in the Sandwiches is revelatory. Who knew the poet, whose work praised suburbia, trains and the working classes, loved Max Miller and music hall? Or that he used to enjoy writing erotic limericks?
The poet’s reminiscences about his father’s death were deeply moving, his own fear of mortality understandable, and his acceptance, in later life, of news that he had Parkinson’s Disease was stoical. “It could be worse,” he said.
It’s hilariously funny. He fell foul of his future mother-in-law by turning up for dinner at the Savoy wearing an elasticated bow tie. Later, once married, the couple argued so much that their German maid thought that Betjeman’s middle name was “Shutup”.
“Poetry is life,” says 79-year-old Fox. “You can’t live without it.”
Sadly that seems no longer the case.
Nostalgic, warmhearted and superbly played, Sand in the Sandwiches continues at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.
UK Tour Dates
November 1, Harlow Playhouse November 2- 12, Minerva Theatre, Chichester November 15-16, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford November 20, Northcott Theatre, Exeter November 21-23, Salisbury Playhouse November 24, Folkestone Book Festival.
Sand in the Sandwiches
Nostalgic, warmhearted, Edward Fox delivers a masterful solo turn in Hugh Whitemore’s celebration of poet Sir John Betjeman, Sand in the Sandwiches.