As well as to Philip Larkin, the George Macbeth anthology Poetry 1900 to 1965 introduced me to John Betjeman’s Christmas poem “Indoor Games Near Newbury”. At the time of my first reading, my immediate comparison would have been a handful of experiences of pre-adolescence social gatherings at school or in my own and others’ homes, albeit occasions at which all cars, never mind the chauffeured cars mentioned by Betjeman, were rarer. These days, the poem does still recall particular memories of my own childhood home, a generously proportioned Victorian villa full of corners and passages and alcoves, which felt especially dramatic in dark winter-time, but also, suddenly, the Alberto Cavalcanti episode of the children’s party game in the brilliant film Dead of Night.
Later, I discovered “Christmas”, Betjeman’s more direct paean to the season and a poem about, to use a modern slogan, “putting Christ into Christmas”. Betjeman scans through the post-war Christmas landscape, with its once-a-year explosions of fellow feeling and frantic commercial activity, and reminds us that all this is peripheral to a Christian faith which can be practised every day and any day. Michael Sheen performed it well in neon-lit urban streets in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas. I wonder if its sentiments are now even more old-fashioned than those of “Indoor Games Near Newbury”?