We found this very affectionate parody of John Betjeman torn out of a magazine (possibly the London Magazine) in our voluminous archives. It is by the eminent travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and appears to date from the fifties or sixties. Whoever tore it out obviously valued it as an item worthy of preservation, and indeed as parodies go, it is a pretty accurate imitation of the poet’s style.
Although the scansion is sometimes clunky ( or even downright bad) and the rhymes positively Byronic at times—risk it/biscuit; harmony/Abide with me—the piece is redolent of Betjeman’s inimitable , well, Betjemanisms, as it evokes a visit by bicycle to a parish church, which could be anywhere, but may possibly have been in Cornwall. As well as the expected allusions to ecclesiastical features—interiors and exteriors—and Anglican name dropping ( with the Catholic Pugin worked in)—we find the poem overloaded with evocative trade names ( Peak Frean biscuits, Ronuk polish, Raleigh and Rudge bikes, Dolcis, Lotus and Delta shoes.
Because of his inimitable style Betjeman must be one of the most parodied of twentieth century writers. One of the best of these exercises appeared in Private Eyeduring the poet’s own lifetime, and we must assume that it was appreciated by its ‘ victim’. I learnt it off by heart and hope that I can recall it accurately:
‘ Lovely lady in the pew
Golly, what a scorcher, pheeew
What wouldn’t I give to do
Unmentionable things to you
And if old God is still up there
I’m sure He really wouldn’t care.
I’m sure He’d say a little lech
Never did harm to good old Betch.’
Ted Hughes, Larkin, Pound and Eliot must be other candidates for parody, although I only know of Henry Reed’s brilliant ‘Chard Whitlow’ ‘ (in A Map of Verona), which Eliot himself praised for its accuracy. In the past we looked in the New Statesmanfor wonderful parodies in its annual competition. Today, however, now that the Staggers competition has disappeared to make way for po-faced, boring and PC material, we turn to the Eyefor good parodies, most of which are done by the brilliant Craig Brown in his ‘Diary’ . The poetry ones, (which have included parodies of recent Poet Laureates) though, are perhaps the work of other Eyestaffers.