Sunday, April 15, 2018

Lines to Remember

The railway crossing the river at Bradford-on-Avon, with the fourteenth-century Tithe Barn in the middle distance.
For travellers to London by rail from Bath and Bristol, the most straightforward route is the Great Western main line of course: 125mph to Paddington, with no hesitation or deviation, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel with straightforwardness uppermost in his mind.  Three times a day, however, a train arrives from the capital 'round the back' via Salisbury and Warminster, and three times a day there is a return journey to Waterloo.

Bristol Temple Meads 1249
Keynsham 1255 1256
Oldfield Park 1302 1303
Bath Spa 1305 1307
Bradford-on-Avon 1318 1319
Trowbridge 1327 1328
Westbury 1334 1339
Warminster 1346 1346
(attached to the 1215 from Exeter St. Davids)
1416 1421
Andover  1437 1438
Basingstoke 1455 1457
Woking 1515 1517
Clapham Junction 1536 1537
London Waterloo 1549

The timings of the 1249 from Bristol are perfect for an unhurried afternoon run, as I found last week, joining at Bath.  It was the third day of spring's first serious uprising against this iron Lenten winter we have been having.  All the trees were bare still, but the sun had spring's confidence and even spring's warmth.  Easter holidays had brought children to playgrounds and teenagers to river-banks, though nobody else seemed to need to go anywhere far: the train was almost empty as it wound up the Avon valley.  From Bradford-on-Avon we ran with assiduous avoidance of alacrity to Trowbridge, and in the platform at the next station, Westbury, we were momentarily facing away from London, in the right direction for Penzance.  Then between there and Warminster lies the village of Dilton Marsh, and we ran non-stop through the Dilton Marsh Halt of John Betjeman's poem, which struck me anew when I re-read it on arriving home.  I realise it shows with particular clarity the opposition of two voices that are in near conflict throughout Betjeman's poetry as a whole.  They are set against each other in this poem, and one of them is a clear victor.

On one hand there is the familiar ironic, comic and parodying voice, the 'Come-friendly-bombs-and-fall-on-Slough' schoolboy irreverence that reads as if scribbled in a margin, which Betjeman achieves by singing of mundane modernity in Romantic, Wordsworthian diction, and sending up both.  So, in answer to the question, "Was it worth keeping the Halt open...?", mused on with deliberate bathos 'as we looked at the sky', comes the carefully ironic response:

"...Yes, we said, for in summer the anglers use it,
Two and sometimes three
Will bring their catches of rods and poles and perches
To Westbury, home for tea."

A crucial transport interchange, then!  And later, unmistakeable Betjeman:

O housewife safe in the comprehensive churning
Of the Warminster launderette!
O husband down at the depot with car in car-park!
The Halt is waiting yet.

Ha, ha, ha!  We chuckle at the incongruity of the high register and the supposedly banal subjects.  Or we smile wryly at the witty caricature of modern life.  Good old Betjeman, what a laugh!  But there, in the last line of that stanza, does the parody not fade abruptly?  Just where we might expect a punchline, the Wordsworth mimic vanishes.  No joke is cracked.   'The Halt is waiting yet': the first impression is simply that this sentence is not ironic and that it does not say much, but, read again, in its very plainness there is something mysterious.

And then, proving beyond doubt that this straight face has not been pulled for the sake of rhyme or metre, there follows the extraordinary last verse, casting aside the schoolboy smirk once and for all:

And when all the horrible roads are finally done for,
And there's no more petrol left in the world to burn,
Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol
Steam trains will return.

This is the other voice, plangent, disarming and perhaps the truer Betjeman, which appears with particular force in this poem and for which, I contend, the mischief is a front and in fact a defence mechanism.  And I can see why Betjeman needed such a defence mechanism.  The strength of his sentiment might be met with bewilderment even today, but in the 1960s, when the car was the future and anything even faintly Victorian was fair game for gleeful destruction, how much more greatly the laughs would have dwarfed those generated by the Lyrical Ballads spoofery.

Yet the outburst of this last stanza, in its audacious earnestness, shows how visceral nostalgia can be.  Nostalgia is not always an enjoyably fuzzy emotion, a melancholy to wallow in, and it cannot always be held back.  Hopeless it may be, but perhaps it must sometimes cry aloud in defiance of slick progressivists and 'bespectacled grins' (did not Philip Larkin too have two voices, one a foil for the other?).


  1. Excellent post! Indeed, I think this is a common device in Betjeman. For instance, his famous verse regarding "what our country stands for" from "In Westminster Abbey":

    Think of what our Nation stands for,
    Books from Boots' and country lanes,
    Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
    Democracy and proper drains.
    Lord, put beneath Thy special care
    One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

    Betjeman is obviously being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here, but it remains a lyrical evocation.

    Meanwhile, I am flabbergasted you didn't mention "Slow Train"!!!

    1. Oh dear — so am I, now you mention it! That song, which I still find as moving as I did when I was small, is another example of a sudden straight face made by a comedian. And it has more or less the same subject.

      And yes, that verse from 'In Westminster Abbey' is another example of poetry that derives a definite power from being not quite completely facetious.

      Thanks for the comment!


Please add your thoughts! All civil comments are warmly welcomed.