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Bearing witness to Betjeman's Oxford
2:34pm Thursday 17th May 2012 in Weekend & Leisure
What was the ancestry of Aloysius, the famous teddy bear belonging to Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited? Some say that his creator, Evelyn Waugh, conceived him after hearing about John Betjeman’s bear. His name was Archibald Ormsby Gore and he was “born” in 1908 — two years after Betjeman himself came into the world.
Quite why he was called that, no one knows; presumably Betjeman just loved the name of this distinguished old Welsh family and decided to align his bear to it. He wrote in 1931, 14 years before the publication of Brideshead: “There was once an elderly bear/ Whose head was the shape of a pear/. He sat in deep gloom/ And longed for the tomb/ As he had lost nearly all of his hair”.
In any case I cannot help thinking that Betjeman at Oxford, where I believe the bear accompanied him to Magdalen College in 1925, was far more like Charles Ryder, the narrator, than Sebastian Flyte. He was an observer of grand people rather than actually being one himself. Like Ryder he came from comparatively humble origins in London — the son of a furniture manufacturer; but at Oxford he was intrigued, for instance, by a peer who rushed round a college quadrangle shouting: “I am as drunk as the lord that I am.”
Leafing through some of what he would probably describe as “hack” work (he famously described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack” I found it impossible not to marvel on how much the place, both town and gown, has changed in the last 80 years — possibly more than in the preceding 200 years, even taking into account the various Royal Commissions etc that triggered such dramatic changes in the 19th century as the building of his beloved North Oxford.
He was of course a great analyser of people and places. For instance he saw three Oxfords: the Christminster of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure; Oxford University; and something he called Motopolis, which he abhorred.
He wrote in his guidebook: “To escapists, to arty people like the author of these pages, the internal combustion engine is, next to wireless, the most sinister modern invention. It booms overhead with its cargo of bombs, it roars down the lanes with its cargo of cads, it poisons the air, endangers the streets, deafens the ears and deadens the senses.”
As to people, he divided undergraduates into two types: aesthetes and hearties. He wrote: “Hearties were good college men who rowed in the college boat, ate in the college hall and drank beer and shouted. Their regulation uniform was college tie, college pullover, tweed coat and grey flannel trousers. “Aesthetes, on the hand, wore whole suits, silk ties of single colour and sometimes — but only for a week or two while they were fashionable — trousers of cream or strawberry pink flannel.
“They let their hair grow long and never found out, as I never found out, where the college playing fields were, or which was the college barge.”
These were glitterati, either really rich or at any rate able to obtain credit, whom he sometimes called Georgians because they dined at The George, which until the 1940s stood on the corner of George Street and Cornmarket, “where there was a band consisting of three ladies and where punkahs suspended from the ceiling, swayed to and fro, dispelling the smoke from Egyptian and Balkan cigarettes.”
At Magdalen, his first tutor was the Rev JM Thompson, of whom he wrote: “Rumour had it that he had been defrocked for preaching in Magdalen College Chapel that the miracles were performed by electricity”; and second, CS Lewis with whom he did not get on and described as: “Breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.”
He left Oxford without a degree. As for Waugh, Betjeman described him as an “accurate and learned observer.”
Perhaps the two bears, Aloysius and Archibald, were sort of observers of the observers.