Betjeman’s views on PR may be informed by his work for the Ministry of Information in the films division – this was the central government department responsible for publicity and propaganda in the Second World War. Then, as press attaché in Ireland, he influenced public opinion by arranging for the battle scenes in Laurence Olivier’s patriotic 1944 film of Henry V to be filmed in Ireland.
During this time, he realised in order to persuade people of anything it was usually necessary to identify with them. Betjeman had made uncomplimentary remarks about Swindon in 1937 and subsequent correspondence revealed the “public consisted of real individuals with real feelings, rather than a stereotypical mass”. This lesson applies to those of us working in PR today.
Anyway, back to the poem – which is part of an anthology being read in my local village hall this Friday (for which I have produced a visual accompaniment).
“The village inn, the dear old inn,
So ancient, clean and free from sin,
True centre of our rural life
Where Hodge sits down beside his wife
And talks of Marx and nuclear fission
With all a rustic’s intuition.
Ah, more than church or school or hall,
The village inn’s the heart of all”
So spake the brewer’s PRO,
A man who really ought to know,
For he is paid for saying so.
And then he kindly gave to me
A lovely coloured booklet free.
“Twas full of prose that sang the praise
Of coaching inns in Georgian days,
Showing how public-houses are
More modern than the motor-car,
More English than the weald or sold
And almost equally as old.
And run for love and not for gold
Until I felt a filthy swine
For loathing beer and liking wine,
And rotten to the vary core
For thinking village inns a bore
And village bores more sure to roam
To village inns than stay at home.
And then I thought I must be wrong,
So up I rose and went along
To that old village alehouse where
In neon light is written “Bear”.
Ah, where’s the inn that once I knew
With brick and chalky wall
Up which the knobbly pear-trees grew
For fear the place would fall?
Oh, that old pot house isn’t there,
It wasn’t worth our while.
You’ll find we have rebuilt “The Bear”
In Early Georgian style.
But winter jasmine used to cling
With golden stars a-shine
Where rain and wind would wash and swing
The crudely painted sign.
And where’s the roof of golden thatch?
The chimney-stack of stone?
The crown-glass panes that used to match
East sunset with their own?
Oh now the walls are red and smart,
The roof has emerald tiles.
The neon sign’s a work of art
And visible for miles.
The bar inside was papered green,
The settles grained like oak,
The only light was paraffin,
The woodfire used to smoke.
And photographs from far and wide
Were hung around the room;
The hunt, the church, the football side,
And Kitchener of Khartoum.
Our air-conditioned bars are lined
With washable material,
The stools are steel, the taste refined,
Hygienic and ethereal.
Hurrah, hurrah, for hearts of oak!
Away with inhibitions!
For here’s a place to sit and soak
In sanit’ry conditions.
Betjeman’s portrait of the public relations officer is someone involved in a publicity role – which he sees as having a duplicitous nature; selectively presenting facts on behalf of a paymaster. A function perhaps indicative of the 1950s when the new was presented as better than whatever it replaced – a move away from heritage and community.
The poem may be sentimental and hark after an idealistic British countryside that probably never existed. Indeed, one of our modern images of a traditional country pub is the Ploughman’s lunch, which was apparently created by Richard Trehane, chairman of the English Country Cheese Council in 1960.
I’m not aware of other references to PR in poems – but if you know of any, I’d love to hear them.