John Betjeman is most famous in the UK as a poet. Born in 1906, he died in 1984 and was in fact one of our Poet Laureates, but I've no idea how well known he is outside the UK. He was also a famous radio broadcaster and Trains and Buttered Toast is a selection of broadcasts made in the 1930s and 40s. They read like essays to be honest and I have to admit that I found some more interesting than others. Betjeman was well known for his dislike of progress that came in the form of the ruination of the English countryside, ie. modern suburban sprawl. He loved Victorian architecture, old picturesque villages, the south west of England and, in particular, the county of Cornwall. All of these things are well represented in these broadcast essays.
In Coming Home, or England Revisited he talks about the things he misses about England when he's abroad. Railway journeys, Women's Institutes, places such as Norfolk, Ludlow, Salisbury and so on. He wrote this in 1943 when he was the UK's press attaché in Dublin but nevertheless I still keenly identified with his feelings, as I feel that way when I'm not here too! Not so much when I'm in the USA, but every time we used to go to France I would be dying to get home and would actually cry when Plymouth came into view from the ferry. I have a feeling Betjeman would have understood.
In Port Isaac he talks about one of his favourite Cornish fishing villages - he had a home near there until he died I believe. I don't know this village well, been there a couple of times but chiefly know it from the TV series, 'Doc Martin'. It really is a beautiful village and Betjeman writes very atmospherically about it:
Not until you round a corner do you see any sign of Port Isaac at all. Then you see it all - huddled in a steep valley, a cove at the end of a combe, roofs and roofs tumbling down either steep hillside in a race for shelter from the south-west gales. A freshwater stream pours brown and cold along the valley, under slate bridges, between old houses, under the road and out into the little harbour.
The trade of Port Isaac is really fishing. The promise of a dark night after a shoal of pilchards had been sighted; the sound of rowlocks and splashing of oars in harbour water, then boarding the fishing boat from the dinghy; the outside roar of the sea; the dark cliffs fading in twilight and dropping away as we move out to open sea; letting down the nets and drifting - those were the times! Unless, like me, you were a shocking sailor and sick all night and thanking God for dawn light and the nearing cliff of Varley Head as we made for home and harbour.
He did a series called 'Book Talk' apparently and one of those, entitled Yesterday's Fiction, deals with the joys of forgotten Edwardian fiction. I found this one very interesting as he was talking in 1944 and already many authors were out of fashion. Anthony Hope was a big favourite of Betjeman's... writer of The Prisoner of Zenda and other 'Ruritanian' novels. He also recommended The King's Mirror, Tristram of Blevit and The Dolly Dialogues none of which I've ever heard of. Other authors he recommends: George Gissing, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose McCaulay, E.F. Benson, Rider Haggard, 'Q' and many more. Two books: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childs, a spy yarn which I'm pretty sure I saw in Waterstones recently, and Red Pottage by Mary Chalmondeley which Virago book I actually own, so will have to get that out to read.
A batch of five essays was entitled 'Christian Soldiers' and encompassed famous saints and Christians - my favourite of those was Sabine Baring-Gould. I have to admit this was mainly due to reading The Moor, one of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books, in which Sabine (pronounced Saybin) Baring-Gould was one of the main characters. This real life vicar of the small hamlet of Lew Trenchard on Dartmoor was a prolific author and also a collector of Devon folk tunes which he toured the county collecting with clergyman F.W Bussell...
Bussell himself is so equisite that Baring-Gould tells the story of how he specially had orchids sent from London to match his clothes. (Bussell lived with his mother in a house Baring-Gould built and sang falsetto at village concerts to the amusement of the village and the distress of his mother.) 'We visited Huccaby' says Baring-Gould, 'to interview old Sally Satterly, who knew a number of songs. But she was busy, she had to do her washing. Mr. Bussell seated himself, inconsiderately, on the copper for the boiling, till she lighted the fire under it and drove him off. I had to run after her as she went about her work, dotting down her words, while Bussell followed, pencil and music book in hand, transcribing her notes'.
It was fascinating to read more about this so called 'squarson' (mix of squire and parson in the village), who was quite content with his lot in the tiny Devon hamlet, with his wife and fourteen children, and never wished to be more than he was.
So, did I love this book? Well, parts of it. Some of it didn't appeal much, he does bang on endlessly about progress and though he had a point, it does get a bit wearing. But when he's talking about his love of England, of Cornish villages, books that he loves or train journeys that no longer exist then he really is interesting and beautifully atmospheric in his writing. One to get from the library in my opinion.
Photo from www.JohnBetjeman.com