4 NOVEMBER 1972, Page 28

Poet Laureates

Poet and peasant

Benny Green

This may come as a rude surprise to those who have any conception of the vast ramifications of my social experience, but I never actually met William Wordsworth. Sad but true. What is very much more remarkable is that by a truly extraordinarily malignant conspiracy of fate, nor did I meet any of his next five successors as Poet Laureate, although one night in my teens, during a seance at a flat in Luxborough Street, opposite the old Workhouse, Alfred, Lord Tennyson intruded on an investigation of ours into the probable outcome of next year's 2,000 Guineas, by spelling out, in a style whose use of language confirmed beyond any doubt that this was indeed Tennyson who was addressing us, " Get that bum Austin outa here." When we asked him for further details he vanished as abruptly as he had arrived, but years later, when I was working in a holiday-camp band in the Isle of Wight, one of the waitresses who was astrally inclined, claimed to have encountered Tennyson's shade while walking across Freshwater Bay near where the old boy once lived. According to her he manifested himself as a yellow cloud on top of a furze bush and asked her how would she like to come back to his place. As I have always found waitresses to be at least as truthful as those who employ them, I append the anecdote for whatever it may be worth to the compilers of the Dictionary of National Biography.

Tennyson's heartfelt cry of anguish that night in Luxborough Street does not reflect too well the third Marquess of Salisbury, who, having been persecuted for years by people coming up to him in the street and asking him for Tennyson's autograph, appointed Alfred Austin as the next Laureate in the certitude that as nobody in his right mind could possibly wish to have Austin's autograph, or even his poetry, life might become a little more peaceful. Austin was five feet tall, and once when taken to task for syntactical solecisms replied, " These things come to me from above," although I suppose that when you are only five feet tall practically everything does.

Those who complained this year about the hiatus between the death of one Laureate and the appointment of another, must have forgotten that when after fortytwo years in the job Tennyson finally crossed the bar in 1892, his eminence had grown so awesome that for four years after his death the Empire preferred, to go Laureateless rather than face the arduous duty of finding a successor. Eventually in 1896 Salisbury appointed Austin. A better idea would have been to dig up Tennyson.

One of the most pleasing things about Tennyson's incumbency is the richness of the anecdotage he bequeathed to us. In Edith Sitwell's Victoria of England, a work which has tended to get submerged, in the vast oceans of Longfordiana and Woodham-Smithery, there is at least one Tennyson story which deserves to survive. Once at a garden party Tennyson said to a lady, "Young woman, K was wrong. It was not your stays, it was my braces."

It was Sir Edmund Gosse who circulated this story in the belief that it illustrated Tennyson's passion for the truth; an alternative interpretation is that it illustrated Tennyson's passion for girls with creaky stays. In any case, if Gosse circulated the story, it may safely be discounted.

The first Poet Laureate to have the honour of holding the job down during my own lifetime was Robert Bridges, but although I was nearly three years old before Bridges joined his predecessors, he made no attempt to contact me, any more than John Masefield did after him, even though I once bought a novel he had written called Bird of Dawning under the mistaken impression that it was the sequel to The History of Mr Polly. Mr Day Lewis I once sat quite close to in Rule's Restaurant, but as I have never really been much of a practitioner in the art of haranguing perfect strangers ,the occasion passed off uneventfully. Which brings me to Sir John Betjeman, the only Poet Laureate in English history with whom I have ever conducted a conversation or shared professional duties.

Seven years ago a television company, having arranged for Sir John and myself to appear together three times in one week on a discussion programme, suddenly had misgivings that the two of us might not have enough in common for us to make any kind of conversational exchange possible. The two incompatibles were therefore taken to lunch on the company's money, made to sit facing each other and placed under close observation for any sign of mutual interest. The venue was a Piccadilly restaurant called Scott's which, as Sir John observed with sad precognition as he tapped a marble pillar, was far too civilised and benignant an edifice to be allowed to survive for very much longer. As far as I can remember I grunted eloquently in response to this truism and went on to study the menu as though it were, as Andre Previn would say, one of the missing pages from the score of Daphnis and Chloe.

Sir John made several more attempts after that to confirm a brooding suspicion in his mind that I might be alive, succeeding finally when apropos a reference to his diary to confirm the dates of our telecast, be mentioned The Diary of a Nobody, at which I reacted like a jack-inthe-box when the lid has been released, and our producer breathed a sigh of relief undiminished by the fact that he had never heard of the book we were talking about. The programmes eventually went off very well, and after one of them, while we were all being chaffeured back to central London, Sir John glanced eastwards out of the window, informed us that nearby was a famous churchyard, reeled off the names of forty or fifty of its incumbents, and made a further reference to The Diary of a Nobody. It was in the following year that he published his poem 'In a Willesden Churchyard' in which he talks of

. . . the graves

Of many a Pooter and his Caroline, Long laid to rest among these dripping trees; And that small heap of fast-decaying flowers Marks Lupin Pooter lately gathered in.

The only other relevant point to this story is that on the day of the last of our three programmes, Sir John entered the Green Room and slipped me an Arrowsmith first edition of The Diary of a Nobody, murmuring apologetically that as he had two, he thought I might like to have one, a gesture of such overwhelming generosity that I never even had the wit to ask him to inscribe it.