A quaintly eccentric Englishman I knew in the Seventies practised a strange opening gambit. What, he had the disconcerting habit of asking total strangers in the conviviality of a student’s bar, do you think of John Betjeman'
It was an odd question and left more than a few retorting: how much' Practising his Gaelic shrug, he would move effortlessly on to other things, pretending the question about the then poet laureate was an absent-minded diversion.
On the third occasion I heard him pop the Betjeman question, I tentatively asked him what he was getting at. “It’s quite simple”, he replied, “the attitude to Betjeman determines where a person stands and what he stands for.” Then, responding to my bewilderment, he added politely, “In England at least.”
Nearly three decades went by before Betjeman cropped up again in a conversation — this time by a friend who was pleasantly surprised by my robust defence of fox-hunting and my wistful lament at the disappearing “horsy” Englishwomen. “I hope you meet your Joan Hunter Dunn”, he said while leaving. Then, correctly gauging that the allusion had been lost, he added: “Betjeman, you know.”
Of course I didn’t, but a year later, particularly on the last days of his centenary year, the poetry of Betjeman has come to haunt me —and occupy some hours of playtime on my iPod. Yes, I now agree, the Betjeman test is probably far more effective than the controversial Tebbit test in ascertaining complex questions of commitment and identity — without reducing it to the level of football yobs and the Barmy Army now touring Australia.
For a committed High Church Anglican who was as moved by church architecture as he was by theology, the essence of Christmas went beyond the festive season atmosphere: “No love that in a family dwells,/ No carolling in frosty air,/ Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/ Can with this single Truth compare/ That God was Man in Palestine/ And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.” To Betjeman, Christmas was, of course, a social festival but, at the end of the day, it was about Christ. His Anglicanism and his Englishness — sometimes quite inseparable — inevitably linked Christmas to “This most tremendous tale of all,/ Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,/ A Baby in an ox’s stall.”
To Betjeman, December was always the month of Merry Christmas, not the occasion to impart Season’s Greetings.
Betjeman was a popular, best-selling poet, even in his lifetime. An accomplished TV performer, his appeal was peculiarly English. He captured the English experience from the jolly-hockey-sticks J. Hunter Dunn to the innocent patriotism of the lady’s prayer — “Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans./ Spare their women for thy Sake,/ And if that is not easy/ We will pardon Thy Mistake./ But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,/ Don’t let anyone bomb me.” He was witty, irreverent, romantic and, most important, contemporary. He could despair of “Dear old, bloody old England/ Of telegraph poles and tin,/ Seemingly so indifferent/ And with so little soul to win” and shed a tearful glance at “that deserted pew”, where his wife, Penelope, once sat before defecting to Roman Catholicism. Betjeman epitomized a conservative Englishness which loved England even as he laughed at it.
The underpinning of this England was and is, very predictably, Christian — not narrowly Church of England but Christian in a cross-denominational sense. And Christmas is the most important day in the Christian calendar. Yet, a recent survey by the law firm Peninsula revealed that three out of four British employers have banned conventional Christmas decorations, lest they offend non-Christian employees. The report suggested that the management was fearful that the outward trappings of Christian joy —holly and mistletoe and mournful carols in the tea room — would invite legal retribution from offended minorities. Consequently, the office Christmas binge, where everyone got roaringly drunk and acted extremely silly, hasn’t been abandoned; it’s just been re-christened as the annual party or holiday piss-up. A particularly mindless local authority in Birmingham, the home of Balti cooking, has renamed its Christmas celebrations as the Winterval.
Like the British Airways ban on the air hostess wearing a discreet crucifix — aimed, presumably, at maintaining the health of a few passengers on the night flight from Transylvania — the assault on Christmas owes its origin to a pernicious multiculturalism born in the social science faculties of North American universities.
In a Britain whose urban demographic profile has changed dramatically in 50 years — they say that one-third of Londoners are not British-born — multiculturalism began as a well-meaning deterrent to racial prejudice. Tragically, it degenerated into a radical battering ram against the dominant culture, the majority religion and accepted values. In education, it took the form of devaluing the importance attached to the English language, history and the classics. Since multiculturalism is based on the assumption that all cultures are equal, it followed that dominant British values had to be brought down a few notches to put native culture on par with immigrant cultures.
This year, for example, Channel Four will be broadcasting a “message” by a fully veiled British Muslim woman at the same time as the Queen delivers her traditional Christmas message. It is not that the Queen’s afternoon message of goodwill sends Britons darting to their TV sets — most are far too drunk by then — but this speech is an English ritual, as important or as meaningless as the royal day at Ascot or the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Equating the head of state with some upholder of the Sharia law for Britain is needlessly provocative.
It is one thing if an act of irreverence followed the logic of some Oxbridge rebels in the Thirties, declaring they were not obliged to fight for the king and the country. However, the problem with multiculturalism is that its offensiveness is packaged as solidarity with vulnerable minorities. The assault on Christmas hasn’t been occasioned by Muslim, Hindu or Jewish disquiet over too much Christianity. The problem lies with concerned do-gooders from the majority community who imagine that any assertion of native tradition is by definition anti-minority. They would rather Betjeman is read on par with Snoop Dog.
The nonsense having gone on for a bit too long, a natural backlash looks imminent. In Britain, the top brass of the Labour Party has publicly distanced itself from a multiculturalism that has promoted ghettoization; the Conservatives have always been wary of this cultural engineering. Last week, Tony Blair brought the term “integration” back to the political discourse.
In India, the trend is to deify what Anglo-Saxons are on the verge of discarding. Last week, Manmohan Singh announced that minorities, notably Muslims, will get first claim on taxpayers’ money. In three years time, presumably, Durga Puja will be re-categorized as the post-bonus festival so as to make it seem non-idolatrous.
Betjeman, to be fair, had always had a nagging fear of an emerging Londonistan. I must confess to rather liking his remedy: “Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/ It isn’t fit for humans now…”