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Sir John Betjeman, CBE ( ; 28 August 1906 – 19 May 1984) was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack". He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and a much-loved figure on British television.

Life

Early life and education

Betjeman was born "John Betjemann", which was changed to the less Germanic "Betjeman" during the First World War. He started life at Parliament Hillmarker Mansions in Highgatemarker in North Londonmarker. His parents Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann had a family firm which manufactured the kind of ornamental household furniture and gadgets distinctive to Victorians. His father's forebears had come from the Netherlandsmarker, more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islingtonmarker, London. In 1909, the Betjemanns left Parliament Hillmarker Mansions, moving half a mile north to more opulent Highgatemarker. From West Hill they lived in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estatemarker.
Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oakmarker.


Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate Schoolmarker, where he was taught by the poet T. S. Eliot. After this, he boarded at the Dragon Schoolmarker preparatory school in North Oxfordmarker and Marlborough Collegemarker, a public school in Wiltshiremarker. In his penultimate year, he joined the secret 'Society of Amici' in which he was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. Reading the works of Arthur Machen while at school, won him over to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of vital importance and to his later writing and conception of the arts.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Betjeman entered the University of Oxfordmarker with considerable difficulty, having failed the mathematics portion of the university's matriculation exam, Responsions. He was, however, admitted as a commoner (i.e. a non-scholarship student) at Magdalen Collegemarker and entered the newly-created School of English Language and Literature. At Oxfordmarker, Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities. His tutor, a young C. S. Lewis, regarded him as an "idle prig" and Betjeman in turn considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired as a teacher. Betjeman particularly disliked the coursework's emphasis on linguistics, and dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life, his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and was editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927. His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow-student Edward James. He famously brought his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore up to Magdalen with him, the memory of which later inspired his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh to include Sebastian Flyte's teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited. Much of this period of his life is recorded in his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells which was published in 1960 and made into a television film in 1976.

It is a common misapprehension, cultivated by Betjeman himself, that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory holy scripture examination, known as Divinity, or, colloquially, as "Divvers." Events were, however, more complicated. In Hilary Term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university (i.e. he was rusticated) for the Trinity Term in order to prepare for a retake of the exam; he was then allowed to return in October. He wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalenmarker, G. C. Lee, stating his position. He asked to be entered for the Pass School – a set of examinations taken on rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve an honours degree. It is also a myth that his teacher C.S.Lewis said "You'd have only got a third" (i.e. a third-class honours degree)- a myth promulgated by Betjeman himself, in Summoned by Bells. In fact, Lewis had informed the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.

Permission to sit the Pass School was granted. Betjeman's famously decided to offer a paper in Welsh. Osbert Lancaster tells the story that a tutor came by train twice a week (first class) from Aberystwyth to teach Betjeman. However, Jesus Collegemarker had a number of Welsh tutors who more probably would have taught him. Betjeman finally had to leave (i.e. he was "sent down") at the end of the Michaelmas Term, 1928. It has recently been clarified that Betjeman did pass his Divinity examination on his third try but was sent down after failing the Pass School. He had achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers (on Shakespeare and other English authors).

Betjeman's academic failure at Oxford rankled him for the rest of his life and he was never reconciled with C.S. Lewis, towards whom he nursed a bitter detestation. This situation was perhaps complicated by his enduring love of Oxford, from which he accepted an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

After university

Betjeman left Oxford without a degree but he had made the acquaintance of people who would influence his work, including Louis MacNeice, W. H. Auden, Maurice Bowra, Osbert Lancaster, George Alfred Kolkhorst, Tom Driberg and the Sitwells.

After university, Betjeman worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard. He was employed by the Architectural Review between 1930 and 1935, as a full time assistant editor, following their publishing of some of his freelance work. Up to this point Betjeman had been an admirer of the Victorian aesthetic; he changed his views, or bit his tongue, while writing for The Review as the editor was a vigorous proponent of Modernism. Mowl (2000) says, "His years at the Architectural Review were to be his true university." At this time, while his prose style matured, he joined the MARS Group, an organisation of young modernist architects and architectural critics in Britain.

On 29 July 1933 Betjeman married the Hon. Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode. The couple lived in Berkshire and had a son, Paul, in 1937. Their daughter, Paula (better known as Candida) was born in 1942. (See Candida Lycett Green).

The Shell Guides, were developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd. The series aimed to guide Britain's growing number of motorists around the counties of Britain and their historical sites. They were published by the Architectural Press and financed by Shell. By the start of World War II 13 had been published, of which Cornwallmarker (1934) and Devonmarker (1936) had been written by Betjeman. A third, Shropshiremarker, was written with and designed by his good friend John Piper in 1951.

In 1939, Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II but found war work with the films division of the Ministry of Information. In 1941 he became British press attaché in Dublinmarker, Ireland, which was a neutral country. He may have been involved with the gathering of intelligence. He is reported to have been selected for assassination by the IRA. The order was rescinded. Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland including "The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom" (1922) with the refrain "Dungarvan in the rain". Greta, the object of his affections has remained a mystery until recently revealed.

After the Second World War

John's wife, Penelope Betjeman became a Roman Catholic in 1948. The couple drifted apart and in 1951 he met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, with whom he developed an immediate and lifelong friendship.

By 1948 Betjeman had published more than a dozen books. Five of these were verse collections, including one in the USA; although not admired by some literary critics, his poetry was popular, and sales of his Collected Poems in 1958 reached 100,000.

He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. He was also a founder member of The Victorian Society (1958). Betjeman was also closely associated with the culture and spirit of Metro-land, as outer reaches of the Metropolitan Railway were known before the war. In 1973 he made a widely acclaimed television documentary for the BBC called Metro-land, directed by Edward Mirzoeff. On the centenary of Betjeman's birth in 2006, his daughter led two celebratory railway trips: one from London to Bristol, the other, through Metro-land, to Quainton Roadmarker.

In 1975, he proposed that the Fine Rooms of Somerset Housemarker should house the Turner Bequest, so helping to scupper the plan of the Minister for the Arts for a Theatre Museummarker to be housed there.

Sir John was very fond of the ghost stories of M.R. James and supplied an introduction to Peter Haining's book M.R. James - Book of the Supernatural. He was very susceptible to the supernatural. In the 1920s, while staying at Biddesden, the country home of Diana Mitford and Bryan Guinness, Betjeman dreamt he was handed a piece of paper with a date on it. Betjeman believed it to be the date of his death, but never disclosed the date to anyone.

Death

John Betjeman's grave


For the last decade of his life Betjeman suffered increasingly from Parkinson's Disease. He died at his home in Trebetherickmarker, Cornwallmarker on 19 May 1984, aged 77, and is buried half a mile away in the churchyard at St Enodoc's Churchmarker. His grave can be seen on the right, immediately after passing through the entrance gate into the churchyard.

Poetry

In his public image Betjeman never took himself too seriously. His poems are often humorous and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling and fogeyish image.

His wryly comic verse is accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant grace. Auden said in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined "... so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium." His poetry is similarly redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. There are constant evocations of the physical chaff and clutter that accumulates in everyday life, the miscellanea of an England now gone but not beyond the reach of living memory. There is Ovaltine and the Sturmey-Archer bicycle gear, and ...
Oh! Fuller's angel-cake, Robertson's marmalade,
Libertymarker lampshades, come shine on us all.


and
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hillmarker


It has been astutely observed that Betjeman's poetry provides the reader with a skeleton key to a long lost past which he will instantly recognise even if he were never there. It is this talent for evoking the familiar and secure, however homely, that makes a reader feel similarly disposed toward Betjeman himself. He is the font of wry, well-painted, avuncular reminiscence.

He was a practicing Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems, albeit sometimes in a rather light-hearted way. He combined piety with a nagging uncertainty about the truth of Christianity. Unlike Thomas Hardy, who disbelieved in the truth of the Christmas story, while hoping it might be so, Betjeman affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false. Even in "Christmas", one of his most openly religious poems, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ's birth do so in the form of a question "And is it true...?" that is answered in the conditional, "For if it is...". Perhaps his views on Christianity were best expressed in his poem The Conversion of St. Paul, a response to a radio broadcast by humanist Margaret Knight:

But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope,
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.






He became Poet Laureate in 1972, the first Knight Bachelor ever to be appointed (the only other, Sir William Davenant, had been knighted after his appointment). This role, combined with his popularity as a television performer, ensured that his poetry eventually reached an audience enormous by the standards of the time. Similarly to Tennyson, he appeals to a very wide public and manages to voice the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people while retaining the respect of many of his fellow poets. This is partly because of the apparently simple traditional metrical structures and rhymes he uses (but not nearly as simple as they might appear).

In the early 1970s, he began a recording career of four albums on Charisma Records which included Banana Blush of 1973 and Late Flowering Love of 1974, where his poetry reading is set to music with overdubbing by leading musicians of the time.

Betjeman and architecture

Betjeman had a special fondness for Victorian architecture and was a founding member of Victorian Society. He lead the campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane Streetmarker in London when it was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s. He fought a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Archmarker, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to save the famous façade of St. Pancras railway stationmarker, London and was commemorated when it reopened as an international and domestic terminus in November 2007. He was said to have called the plan to demolish St. Pancras a "criminal folly." About the station itself he wrote:"What [the Londoner] sees in his mind's eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow's train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street."The newly reopened St. Pancras now features a statue of Betjeman in the station at platform level.

Betjeman Statue in St Pancras
He was alleged to be a snob, a romantic, out of touch with the realities of contemporary life and steeped in nostalgia. While these criticisms contain an element of truth, his opposition to modernism's rejection of history and disdain for the individual has since found support as modernism's full rigour has in turn been rejected and supplanted, and human scale and cultural context have been readmitted to serious debate.

He responded to architecture as the visible manifestation of society's spiritual life as well as its political and economic structure. He attacked speculators and bureaucrats for what he saw as their rapacity and lack of imagination.

The preface of his collection of architectural essays, First and Last Loves says:

We accept the collapse of the fabrics of our old churches, the thieving of lead and objects from them, the commandeering and butchery of our scenery by the services, the despoiling of landscaped parks and the abandonment to a fate worse than the workhouse of our country houses, because we are convinced we must save money.


In a BBC film made in 1968 but not broadcast at that time, Betjeman described the sound of Leedsmarker to be of "Victorian buildings crashing to the ground". He went on to lambast John Poulson's building, British Railways House (now City Housemarker) saying how it blocked all the light out to City Squaremarker and was only a testament to money with no architectural merit. He also praised the architecture of Leeds Town Hallmarker. In 1969 Betjeman contributed the foreword to Derek Linstrum's Historic Architecture of Leeds.

In popular culture since his death

  • A memorial window, designed by John Piper, is set in All Saints' Church, Farnboroughmarker, Hampshire, where Betjeman lived in the adjoining Rectory.
  • The Betjeman Millennium Park at Wantagemarker in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire), where he had lived from 1951 to 1972 and where he set his book, Archie and the Strict Baptists.
  • Suggs, the lead singer of Madness named Betjeman's "On a Portrait of a Deaf Man," as one of his Desert Island Discs.
  • In May 2007 excerpts of John Betjeman's poem The Cockney Amorist were used in the song Sheila by Jamie T, reaching #15 in the UK Singles Chart.
  • The Morrissey song Everyday Is Like Sunday contains the line in "the seaside town that they forgot to bomb" which was inspired by the line "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough" from Betjeman's poem Slough from Continual Dew.
  • The singer Morrissey chose one of Betjeman's poems, A Child III, for his NME complimation CD Songs to Save your Life.
  • The comedy series The Office, set in Betjeman's dreaded Slough, features manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) reading a few lines from the poem Slough, before dismissing Betjeman as "over-rated".
  • The Pet Shop Boys quote his line "Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea" in their song Building a Wall on the album Yes (2009). The quote is from the poem Trebetherick.


The John Betjeman Young People's Poetry Competition

The prize was inaugurated in 2006 to celebrate Betjeman's centenary. The competition is open to 11–14 year olds living anywhere in the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland. Entrants are limited to one poem each about their local surroundings or any aspect thereof, whether it be a house, a street, a garden, a park, a city or a wider landscape. The spirit behind the competition is to encourage young people to understand and appreciate the importance of place. Entry forms can be downloaded online. The prize giving event for the competition in 2009 will take place at St Pancras International Station in October.

Honours



Bibliography

  • Matthew, H.C.G. and Harrison, B. (eds), (2004). Oxford dictionary of national biography (vol. 5). Oxford: OUP.
  • Brooke, Jocelyn (1962). Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Games, Stephen (2006). Trains and Buttered Toast, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Games, Stephen (2007). Tennis Whites and Teacakes, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Games, Stephen (2007). Sweet Songs of Zion, Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Games, Stephen (2009). Betjeman's England, Introduction. London: John Murray.
  • Gardner, Kevin J. (2005). "John Betjeman." The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Green, Chris (2006). John Betjeman and the Railways. Transport for London
  • Hillier, Bevis (1984). John Betjeman: a life in pictures. London: John Murray.
  • Hillier, Bevis (1988). Young Betjeman. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4531-5.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2002). John Betjeman: new fame, new love. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5002-5.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2004). Betjeman: the bonus of laughter. London : John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6495-6.
  • Hillier, Bevis (2006). Betjeman: the biography. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6443-3
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (Aug 2006). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.1, 1926 to 1951. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77595-X
  • Lycett Green, Candida (Ed.) (Aug 2006). Letters: John Betjeman, Vol.2, 1951 to 1984. London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-77596-8
  • Lycett Green, Candida, Betjeman's stations in The Oldie, September 2006
  • Mirzoeff, Edward (2006). Viewing notes for Metro-land (DVD) (24pp)
  • Mowl, Timothy (2000). Stylistic Cold Wars, Betjeman versus Pevsner. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5909-X
  • Schroeder, Reinhard (1972). Die Lyrik John Betjemans. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. (Thesis).
  • Sieveking, Lancelot de Giberne (1963). John Betjeman and Dorset. Dorchester: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society.
  • Stanford, Derek (1961). John Betjeman, a study. London: Neville Spearman.
  • Taylor-Martin, Patrick (1983). John Betjeman, his life and work. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-1539-0
  • Wilson, A. N. (2006). Betjeman. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-179702-0


References

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