Caught by the River

River Song

20th November 2011

by Phil Thornton:

I’ve always been prejudiced against posh people. As a kid I grew up with a trade unionist dad who was forever on strike and when I was sent to the local grammar school (against my wishes) my prejudice intensified ten fold. My theory was that there was an educational apartheid system in place that worked against working class kids. Grammar schools, rather than encouraging working class kids to succeed and producing a truly meritocratic society based upon talent, only served as yet another method of indoctrinating young people into upholding the class system. You could make it but only on ‘their’ terms, as long as you played the game and felt forever grateful for this kind opportunity.

I still believe this by the way but over the years my inate hosility towards posh people has mellowed into mild amusement mixed with pity. Take Sir John Betjeman for example. As a fan of poetry, I had always dismissed Betjemen as exactly the type of upper class ‘laureate’ who represented everything wrong with British society. Johnny was sentimental, elitist, conservative, staid. He was all that I despised about the self-mythologising aristocracy and their lickspittle cultural yeomanry.

Then I heard Banana Blush, Betjeman’s 1974 collection of poems set to Jim Parker’s musical arrangements LP which contains the utterly beautiful composition ‘Youth & Age On Beaulieu River Hants.’ The poem itself is quintessential Betjeman with its closed and coseted world of general’s daughters rowing sharpies near the New Forest. Yet the deceptively simple rhyming structure and the contemplative reflection upon the ageing process and lost youth coupled with the melancholy cello always brings a tear to my cyncial eye. Yes, the river of life imagery is cliched and the story of Clemency and Mrs Fairclough belongs to the black and white raj era that Betjeman seems to long for but there is something in the poem’s construction, its literal and metaphorical flow that invokes a romantic yearning for rivers and lives both known and unknown.

[audio:|titles=04 Youth and Age On Beaulieu River Hants]

The Mersey, the filthy, fast-flowing Mersey passes my town, half a mile from my house. The Weaver, the Gowy and the Dee are within a few miles, flowing out into the Irish sea. They have provided my family and my townsfolk with trade routes and leisure options over the past century or so, along with the Bridgewater and Manchester Ship canals. I have always lived alongside water of one type or another. Betjeman’s world could not be further from my own but his theme is universal. Now, I can hear what he’s saying rather than dismissing his words for how he says them. Who knows, one day, I might get around to reading Andrew Motion.

(Ed’s note: I’ve got three of the (four) records that Sir John made with Jim Parker, the one that Phil mentions, Banana Blush, plus Late Flowering Love and Varsity Rag are all worth investigating).