Wednesday, 2 July 2008

MRTU: John Betjeman on Matlock Bath

I called into Oxfam yesterday, and stumbled on a book of poems by John Betjeman. And bear in mind this is Oxfam in Southend, so a find like that is quite rare!
I've enjoyed stuff by him that I've read, and I've seen before that he's written about some of the places I've lived - Bristol and Clifton and Essex to name but two. But I was delighted to find this poem about Matlock Bath, which is just round the corner from my hometown of Matlock.

I found it really interesting that JB uses so much Biblical imagery when he describes Matlock Bath - if you've ever been there, it's hard not to. I don't mean the pseudo-sea-side bit, but the Heights of Abraham are pretty immense.
But he doesn't marvel and feel inspired by the natural beauty of the rocks and the trees. Instead he feels a sense of doom as he imagines the towering cliffs crashing down and sweeping everything away like a tidal wave. And I think this says something about John Betjeman's outlook on faith, and particularly on non-conformity. He hears the gospel they preach as one of doom and woe. The reference to "Pilgrims of the night" is probably a reference to a hymn, a hymn about death. This life is full of anquish and guilt, which is only lifted by death. And I think that sort of idea colours how he sees Matlock Bath, which as soon as he steps off the train is linked with non-conformity. And so instead of being comforted by the Rock of Ages, cleft for me, instead of feeling loved and cared for by God, he feels only dread.

Matlock Bath

From Matlock Bath's half-timbered station
I see the black dissenting spire
Thin witness of a congregation,
Stone emblem of a Handel choir;
In blest Bethesda's limpid pool
Comes treacling out of Sunday School.

By cool Siloam's shady rill
The sounds are sweet as strawberry jam
I raise mine eyes unto the hill,
The beetling Heights of Abraham;
The branchy trees are white with rime
In Matlock Bath this winter-time,

And from the whiteness, grey uprearing,
Huge cliffs hang sunless ere they fall,
A tossed and stony ocean nearing
The moment to o'erwhelm us all
Eternal Father, strong to save,
How long wilt thou suspend the wave?

How long before the pleasant acres
Of intersecting Lovers' Walks
Are rolled across by limestone breakers,
Whole woodlands snapp'd like cabbage stalks?
O God, our help in ages past,
How long will Speedwell Cavern last?

In this dark dale I hear the thunder
Of houses folding with the shocks,
The Grand Pavilion buckling under
The weight of the Romantic Rocks,
The hardest Blue John ash-trays seem
To melt away in thermal steam.

Deep in their Nonconformist setting
The shivering children wait their doom
The father's whip, the mother's petting
In many a coffee-coloured room;
And attic bedrooms shriek with fright,
For dread of Pilgrims of the Night.

Perhaps it's this that makes me shiver
As I ascend the slippery path
High, high above the sliding river
And terraces of Matlock Bath
A sense of doom, a dread to see
The Rock of Ages cleft for me.


Chris said...

Trust you're familiar with his brent-popularised, Slough:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

Chris said...

and here's some for good measure:

Job came out in boils everywhere
The thing that might make a man swear!
But sitting in ashes
Job scraped at his rashes,
And spent a week pulling his hair.

gazleaney said...

Actually, if I'm honest, it was David Brent who introduced me to John Betjeman in the first place, but I like to keep that quiet...

I think Slough is great. The poem that is. I've never been to the place, but JB obviously wasn't a fan.