Pictorial biography of a distinguished man of letters

John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures, compiled and introduced by Bevis Hillier. London: John Murray. 160 pp. Illustrated with drawings and photographs. $19.95. Assembled and annotated by John Betjeman's authorized biographer, this charming book gives one the pleasure associated with discovering a family scrapbook filled with items as unexpected as they are intriguing. Lavishly illustrated with photographs and reproductions of portraits, and animated by an infectious affection for its subject, this handsome volume will delight admirers of Britain's late poet laureate. It will also serve as an introduction to those unfamiliar with this attractive man of letters who, if not one of the century's great poets, was the author of a body of delightful verse whose rhythmic felicity has enchanted many readers.

Betjeman's world is pictured here, from the teddy bear immortalized in his poetry of childhood to the rather overbearing examples of Victorian architecture he fought so hard -- sometimes with success, sometimes not -- to preserve amid the modern urban sprawl of postwar London. Where else could fans of his celebrated wartime poem ``A Subaltern's Love-song,'' first published by Cyril Connolly in Horizon in February 1941, find a photograph of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, who inspired the poem and whose name lent such resonance to the refrain? Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun, What strenuous singles we played after tea, We in the tournament -- you against me!

But beyond Betjeman, this book is an invaluable source to those who like to travel back in time -- via the constant stream of memoirs and collections of letters being published -- to the literary world of London between the wars. Aficionados of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, and of the world of the Bright Young People celebrated in so many of their novels will find all sorts of riches here. The scores of photographs, for instance, enable one to put a face to many whose names are familiar to readers of literary biographies, journals, and letters of this period.

Bevis Hillier is to be congratulated for the grace with which he has performed this affectionate tribute. The manner in which he has done so gives one every reason to anticipate with great pleasure the advent of his biography of John Betjeman, the first volume of which is nearly completed.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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