Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Lost innocence and winter
sunshine in Beaumaris

‘Low-shot light … lifted a morning haze: / Opening fans of smooth sea-water / Touched in silence the tiny bays: / In bright Beaumaris’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In preparing Bible studies for tutorial groups these past few weeks, I have found myself re-reading John Betjeman poems that illustrate the Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Last week, as we looked at the parable of the widow who demands justice from a cold and impassionate judge (Luke 18: 1-8), which is the Gospel reading for next Sunday (16 October 2016), I turned to Betjeman’s poem, Variation on a Theme by Newbolt, which tells the story of the widow of a banker or lawyer whose plight is ignored by her husband’s former boardroom colleagues. It seemed to be a natural choice, having walked through the City of London a few days earlier.

Tomorrow morning in the tutorial group, we are looking at the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-14), which is the Gospel reading for Sunday week (23 October). To supplement or illustrate our exploration of that reading, I have chosen Betjeman’s poem, In Westminster Abbey, a dramatic monologue that retells the story of the Pharisee’s prayer; the poem is set in the early days of World War II, and tells the story of a woman who drops into Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to ‘a luncheon date.’

Joseph Hansom’s impressive classical Victoria Terrace on the seafront in Beaumaris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

As I was re-reading Betjeman’s poems in a number of collections, I turned again to his poem, Beaumaris December 21, 1963, which rekindled warm memories of my visit to Beaumaris in Anglesey earlier this year [30 April to 2 May 2016].

This poem was first published as Halfpenny throwing ceremony, Beaumaris, Anglesey in the London Magazine 11 (December 1971-January 1972, pp 107-108), but was given a new title when it was included in later anthologies and collections.

A note at the end of the poem explains the circumstance Betjeman is describing: ‘It was a Christmas-tide custom at Beaumaris, Anglesey, for the Queen of the Hunt Ball to throw heated halfpence from a shovel to the crowd below.’

Despite Betjeman’s date on the poem, the tradition was held in Beaumaris on Boxing Day (26 December), when the Queen of the Hunt Ball threw hot pennies from the balcony of the Bulkeley Hotel. The Bulkeley’s chef came out on the balcony with his hat and whites on, carrying a tray of pennies he had warmed in the oven and the mayor and mayoress or the Queen of the Hunt Ball threw the coins over the balcony.

Betjeman’s poem also refers to Joseph Hansom’s impressive classical Victoria Terrace. Hansom also designed the Williams Bulkeley Arms Hotel, consciously presenting a monumental façade towards the Menai Straits.

The hunt ball is a setting possible half a century ago, but probably found in few places on these islands today. Critics who argue that Betjeman’s poetry is innocent or facile would do well to look more closely at this poem where young men chase even a hot, tossed ha’penny, suggesting deeper desires.

This is a poem about lost innocence, and Betjeman’s compassion and stark realism, as in so many of his poems, catch us unexpectedly at the end of the poem. It is eight years since the hunt ball in Beaumaris, and Laurelie Williams,a teenager when she was the Queen of the Hunt Ball in 1963, has become just another housewife and stay-at-home-mother of the 1970s, queueing for buses, tied to the kitchen sink and with her children tied to her apron strings.

How do we continue to retain the glamour and fun we once had earlier in life? How do we continue to find joy in winter, as the seasons turn? Where do find our identity as circumstances change in ways we never expected?

Betjeman’s poem recalls a long-lost Christmas-tide custom at the Bulkeley Hotel in Beaumaris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Beaumaris December 21, 1963, by John Betjeman

Low-shot light of a sharp December
Shifting, lifted a morning haze:
Opening fans of smooth sea-water
Touched in silence the tiny bays:
In bright Beaumaris the people waited–
This was Laurelie’s day of days.

At the northern end of the street a vista
Of sunlit woodland; and south, a tower;
Across the water from Hansom’s terrace,
The glass’d reflection of Penmaenmawr:
High on her balcony Laurelie Williams
Waved the shovel and shot the shower.

Down on us all fell heated ha’pence,
Up to her all of us looked for more:
Laurelie Williams, Laurelie Williams–
Lovlier now than ever before
With your straight black hair and your fresh complexion:
Diamond-bright was the brooch you wore.

Life be kind to you, Laurelie Williams,
With girlhood over and marriage begun:
Queuing for buses and rearing children,
Washing the dishes and missing the fun,
May you still recall how you flung the coppers
On bright Beaumaris in winter sun.

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