Sir John Betjeman
( ; 28 August 1906 â€“ 19 May
1984) was an English poet, writer and broadcaster
who described himself in
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
Early life and education
Betjeman was born "John Betjemann", which was changed to the less
Germanic "Betjeman" during the First
. He started life at Parliament
Hill Mansions in Highgate in North London.
His parents Mabel (nÃ©e 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
Netherlands, more than a century earlier, setting up their home
and business in Islington, London. In 1909, the Betjemanns left Parliament Hill Mansions, moving half a mile north to more opulent
Hill they lived in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts
Here from my eyrie, as the sun went
early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the poet T. S. Eliot
I heard the old North London
puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.
. After this, he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory
school in North
Oxford and Marlborough College, a public
school in Wiltshire.
In his penultimate year, he joined the
secret 'Society of Amici' in which he was a contemporary of both
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
entered the University
of Oxford 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 College and entered the newly-created School of English
Language and Literature. At Oxford, Betjeman made little use of the academic
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
to Magdalen with him, the memory of which later inspired his Oxford
contemporary Evelyn Waugh
's teddy Aloysius
in Brideshead Revisited
. Much of this
period of his life is recorded in his blank
, 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
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 Magdalen, G.
C. Lee, stating his position. He asked
to be entered for the Pass School â€“ a set of examinations taken on
rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve
. 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
tells the story
that a tutor came by train twice a week (first class) from
Aberystwyth to teach Betjeman. However, Jesus College 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
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
Betjeman left Oxford without a degree but he had made the
acquaintance of people who would influence his work, including
, W. H. Auden
, Osbert Lancaster
George Alfred Kolkhorst
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
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
. Mowl (2000) says, "His years at
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
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
The Shell Guides,
developed by Betjeman and Jack
, 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
Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936)
had been written by Betjeman. A third, Shropshire, was written with and designed by his good
friend John Piper in
In 1939, Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II
but found war work with the films
division of the Ministry of
. In 1941 he became British press attachÃ© in
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
. 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
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
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
(1958). Betjeman was also closely associated with the
culture and spirit of Metro-land
outer reaches of the Metropolitan
were known before the war. In 1973 he made a widely
acclaimed television documentary for the BBC
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,
he proposed that the Fine Rooms of Somerset House should house the Turner Bequest, so helping to
scupper the plan of the Minister
for the Arts for a Theatre Museum to be housed there.
Sir John was very fond of the ghost stories of M.R. James
an introduction to Peter Haining
book M.R. James - Book of the Supernatural.
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.
John Betjeman's grave
For the last decade of his life Betjeman suffered increasingly from
at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall on 19 May 1984, aged 77, and is buried half a mile
away in the churchyard at St Enodoc's
His grave can be seen on the right,
immediately after passing through the entrance gate into the
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,
- Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all.
have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
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
He was a practicing Anglican
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.
, 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
, 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
of 1973 and Late Flowering Love
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
. He lead the campaign to save Holy Trinity,
Street 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
Arch, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to
save the famous faÃ§ade of St. Pancras railway station, London and was commemorated when it reopened as an
international and domestic terminus in November 2007.
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
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
The preface of his collection of architectural essays, First
and Last Loves
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.
BBC film made in 1968 but not broadcast at that
time, Betjeman described the sound of Leeds to be of
"Victorian buildings crashing to the ground". He went on to lambast
John Poulson's building, British
Railways House (now City
House) saying how it blocked all the light out to
Square and was only a testament to money with no
architectural merit. He also praised the architecture of Leeds Town
contributed the foreword to Derek Linstrum's Historic
Architecture of Leeds
In popular culture since his death
memorial window, designed by John
Piper, is set in All Saints' Church, Farnborough, Hampshire, where Betjeman
lived in the adjoining Rectory.
Betjeman Millennium Park at Wantage in Oxfordshire (formerly
in Berkshire), where he had lived from
1951 to 1972 and where he set his book, Archie and the Strict
- 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
- 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
- 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 11â€“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.
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dictionary of national biography (vol. 5). Oxford: OUP.
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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.
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Encyclopedia of British Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Green, Chris (2006). John Betjeman and the Railways.
Transport for London
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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.
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London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6443-3
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(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
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Oldie, September 2006
- Mirzoeff, Edward (2006).
Viewing notes for Metro-land (DVD) (24pp)
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Pevsner. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-5909-X
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Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. (Thesis).
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Dorset. Dorchester: Dorset Natural History and Archaeological
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London: Neville Spearman.
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work. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-1539-0
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