Candida Lycett Green

The Betjeman Poetry Prize was founded in 2006 by John Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green. Candida was a writer, horsewoman, mother of five, gardener and conservationist. She wrote hundreds of articles and over sixteen books on gardens, the countryside, architecture and England, as well as editing two acclaimed volumes of JB's letters. She also published two memoirs (Over the Hills and Far Away and The Dangerous Edge of Things) and wrote an 'Unwrecked England' column for The Oldie magazine for over twenty years. She died at home in Uffington, Oxfordshire in August, 2014.

 

Candida Lycett Green writes about her father John Betjeman

Photograph: Andrew Crowley

He is part of me. His influences are all over me, his infectious laughter is within me, his peculiar enthusiasms are mine.

They say what was it like being your father’s daughter. What a question. Who am I? Just that? I’m 63 for heaven’s sake. I’ve been married for forty three years and have a different name.

 

Well, I loved him. I reply. Didn’t you love your father?

 

I tell them what they want to hear. But it isn’t enough. They want to know about his complicated love life. That’s personal to him, not to me. I can’t judge it, encapsulate it.

 

Editing his letters was enough to enlarge  him.

Organising his centenary has confirmed what I already knew to certain extent, that the world loved him too. This doesn’t make me proprietorial. It makes me pleased as punch.

 

Then the detractors say: "You’d never have got where you are now without your father’s name." Wouldn’t I? I’ve only had one stab at life so who knows? I refused to use my maiden name for my first book and it infuriated the publishers, but they published it all the same. But then the publicity people all knew and that was the first question they asked me. What was it like being your father’s daughter?

 

This is what it was like. I’ll tell you. It was like being the child of any other loving father.

 

He died twenty years ago and I think of him every day. He is part of me. His influences are all over me, his infectious laughter is within me, his peculiar enthusiasms are mine. It’s not so surprising. If he had tried to shove anything down my throat I would have rebelled long ago, but he didn’t. He never showed me a book he had written, never told me he was going to be on the radio, never told me he was going to be on the telly. I had to find it all out for myself . A lot of it I only found out when he had died and I edited his letters. It was only then that the sheer volume of his output hit me. I was staggered. Impressed. I thought even more of him.

 

He is there inside my head, safe; his spirit my companion and my lifeline.

 

I could not read his poems with any degree of seriousness until after he had died.

 

It was at a Railway Heritage AGM in the summer of 2004 that I decided to do something towards his celebrating  his centenary. Chris Green, the chief executive of Virgin, said “ What are you doing?” “Well, I hadn’t thought.” “Why don’t we have a centenary train? The goodwill for him is enormous within the railway sector.” That’s how it started and then it grew and grew.

 

We had our first meeting in the soulless, windy  wasteland that is Euston station. There are few places in the country which do not recall a memory of him. I remembered how upset he had been when he lost his battle to save the Euston Arch.

 

In the end it was down to Harold Macmillan, he said. The buck stopped with him.

 

I was surrounded by men who loved the railways. Who knew everything about them, who loved my dad. Here I was in their midst and part of him. Their enthusiasm was infectious.

 

He sat opposite me in the carriage. It smelt fusty. The velveteen material on the seats reeked of old cigarette smoke. There were pictures of Cliveden under the string luggage racks. He smoked passing clouds. I thought the packet was glamorous with its pale pink and gold ground. He carried a big battered book like a telephone book called Bradshaws. There was nothing he enjoyed more than being set a complicated train journey to work out. From Leamington to Ealing Broadway, from Aberdeen to Settle. When he had emptied the cigarette packet he would tear it apart and use the inside to write on. He wrote in tiny illegible writing with a fountain pen. “Look at those villas” , he said as we passed through Pangbourne. “I wonder who built them, I wonder who lived in them first? Shall we imagine. Who do you think first lived in that one with the garden running down to the river?”

 

“A vet?”, because at seven that’s all I wanted to be.

 

“Yes, a vet with a wife who knitted  Fair Isle cardigans which she gave away to all her relations and then the relations said ‘please no more, we have enough to last us a lifetime’ and this hurt her and she went into a long sulk and didn’t speak and the vet got more and more depressed.”

 

“And then she died.”

 

“And she is buried in Pangbourne cemetery under the chestnut tree in the corner.”

 

He told me about Mr Sutton of Suttons seeds in Reading who built an elaborate bungalow back from the Thames.

 

Wibz he called me. Dadz I called him. I’m bored.

 

We got out at Wantage Road station where the steam train stood in its open shed and he told me about the tram which used to run the two miles  from Wantage Road into the town itself  and he showed me a bit of track embedded in the road outside the houses which curve in line with the track.

 

So now on every train journey I pass the landmarks. There was nowhere he didn’t know about.

 

So, don’t you want to be your own person? Make it on your own? Prove yourself?

 

But my father is part of me.

 

He loved Cholsey and Moulsford station. I think more for the sound of it than anything else. Then, when the runner Mary Rand became world famous, so did Cholsey where she was born and every time we passed through it he would say “Ah Mary Rand, you are so beautiful. I love you Mary Rand.”

 

It’s just called Cholsey now.

 

“Deedcote.” The station announcer said. You have arrived at Deedcote.

 

 

© The estate of Candida Lycett Green

Copyright © 2019 Betjeman Poetry Prize   |  All Rights Reserved  |  Charity registration number 1137579

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