‘down the shining lines’: Betjeman’s ‘Metro-Land’

September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

John Betjeman’s 1973 film Metro-Land is a study in elegy.  He is a central presence, more subject than guide, peering from bridges and platforms up the Metropolitan line from city to suburb and towards the pastoral idyll of his memory.  He walks, with a strange, unsteady gait, down quiet streets in Pinner, Neasden, Harrow; pokes around large Edwardian houses; sits, grinning delightedly, at the elbow of an organist playing an old reclaimed Wurlitzer at home for his family.  Yet he is not at home here: he is a visitor, and there is a sense of alienation from the somewhat fractured series of lives his film describes.

In some senses this feeds into a narrative of urbanisation, redolent of that surveyed by John Carey in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, in which so-called progressive writers such as Wells and Forster, witnessing the encroachment into the home counties of suburbia and the clerkly classes, break cover as panic-driven elitists.  But there is something simpler here, too: the  childlike fogey, out of his time, wants to go back.

He is enthralled – as are we – by footage of the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924. ‘There they are!’ he exclaims, as the King and Queen come barrelling out of a tunnel on the miniature train.  Equally astounding is a ghostly photograph of the Great Tower of London – which also rose from Wembley Park – planned to exceed in height the Eiffel Tower, but not completed, and finally dismantled in 1907.  He is looking back to his own youth and beyond, to a world which he configures as one of timeless play, in which the King revels with the people, Keats sings in his beloved Middlesex, neo-Medieval houses stand at the ends of avenues.

There is a wilful bewilderment here.  He stands in a rather grand, though squint, house, asserting tendentiously its modesty by standing in its low doorways like Alice.  In his journey, on the other hand, there is a real seeking.  If he can’t step into the flickering film, he will travel out of the city, watching the world work backwards.

Watching Metro-Land from here, I am, though younger than Betjeman, encouraged into similar reflection.  The heightened colour of 1970s film seems archaic: it situates my childhood in closer proximity to the flickering black and white of the 1920s than to the present.  The people that inhabit it dress accordingly.  Their world isn’t the pop reboot we have come to identify as the glamorous world of Ziggy Stardust and Johann Cruyff, but that of the hobbyist with his books of trains and birds spotted, the weekends tending allotment and lawn.  Fashions looked back to the 50s and 60s: hats, umbrellas, spectacles.

At the beginning of the film, we speed along the length of the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street to Amersham; and it is tempting to read this as an articulation of Betjeman’s urgent need to get back to his salad days.  I would suggest, however, that elegy doesn’t amount to a rejection of the present: it derives from the tension between nostalgia and the bare fact of temporality.  We want to go back to a simpler place, while knowing that we can’t.  So we get off the train, peer into the tunnels, wander along empty avenues and disused platforms, watching for glimpses of the past (or inventing them), aware that its potency is in its loss.  Betjeman wants to go back – to Oxford, to the Exhibition, to the fields, streams and woods of his childhood (where a half-built, alien tower loomed at the horizon); but principally, he is simply enjoying wanting.  And thanks to his film of my childhood, I am able to enjoy this, too.



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