Sir John Betjeman, CBE 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.
Early Life and Education
Betjeman was born "John Betjemann"; this was changed to the less German "Betjeman" during the First World War. He grew up at Parliament Hill Mansions in the Lissenden Gardens private estate in Highgate in North London.
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 Netherlands,] more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, London. Betjeman was baptised at St. Anne's Church Highgate Rise, a 19th Century church situated just at the foot of Highgate West Hill.
In 1909, the Betjemanns left the Parliament Hill Mansions, moving half a mile north to more opulent Highgate. From West Hill they lived in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate:
"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 Oak."
Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the poet T. S. Eliot. 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 Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. While at school, his exposure to the works of Arthur Machen won him over to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of importance to his later writing and conception of the arts.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Betjeman 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 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. During his time at Oxford he was a friend of Maurice Bowra, Dean of Wadham. 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 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". In Hilary Term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university (rustication) for the Trinity Term to prepare for a retake of the exam; he was then allowed to return in October. Betjeman then wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, G. C. Lee, asking 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. In his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman claims that his tutor, C. S. Lewis, said "You'd have only got a third". However, 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 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 College had a number of Welsh tutors who more probably would have taught him. Betjeman finally had to leave at the end of the Michaelmas Term, 1928. 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.
Betjeman left Oxford without a degree but he had made the acquaintance of people who would influence his work, including Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden. 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. 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, Candida Lycett Green was born in 1942.
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 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 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 Dublin, Ireland, then a neutral country, working with Sir John Maffey. 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 after a meeting with an unnamed Old I.R.A. man who was impressed by his works. Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in "Emergency" World War II Ireland including "The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922" (actually written during the war) which contained the refrain "Dungarvan in the rain". " Greta", the object of his affections, has remained a mystery until recently revealed to have been a member of a well known West Waterford Ascendancy family. His official brief included establishing friendly contacts with leading figures in the Dublin literary scene: he befriended Patrick Kavanagh, then at the very start of his career . Kavanagh celebrated the birth of Betjeman's daughter with a poem " Candida"; another well known poem contains the line Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.
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. Sales of his Collected Poems in 1958 reached 100,000. The popularity of the book prompted Ken Russell to make a film about him, John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959). Filmed in 35mm and running 11 minutes and 35 seconds, it was first shown in England on BBC's Monitor programme. 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 Road. In 1975, 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.
Betjeman was 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 susceptible to the supernatural. Diana Mitford tells the story of Betjeman staying at her country home, Biddesden House, in the 1920s. She says, "he had a terrifying dream, that he was handed a card with wide black edges, and on it his name was engraved, and a date. He knew this was the date of his death".
For the last decade of his life Betjeman suffered increasingly from Parkinson's Disease. He died 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 Church.
Betjeman's 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. He talks of Ovaltine and the Sturmey-Archer bicycle gear. "Oh! Fuller's angel cake, Robertson's marmalade," he writes, "Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all." In a 1962 radio interview he told teenage questioners that he could not write about 'abstract things', preferring places, and faces. Philip Larkin wrote of his work, "how much more interesting & worth writing about Betjeman's subjects are than most other modern poets, I mean, whether so-and-so achieves some metaphysical inner unity is not really so interesting to us as the overbuilding of rural Middlesex".
Betjeman was a practising Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems. 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. In the poem "Christmas", one of his most openly religious pieces, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ's birth do so in the form of a question "And is it true...?" His views on Christianity were 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.
Betjeman 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 appealed to a wide public and managed 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. In the early 1970s, he began a recording career of four albums on Charisma Records which included "Banana Blush" (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 fondness for Victorian architecture and was a founding member of Victorian Society. He wrote London's Historic Railway Stations in 1972, defending the beauty of the twelve of London's railway stations. He led the campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane 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 Euston Arch, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to save the famous façade of St Pancras railway station, London and was commemorated when it re-opened as an international and domestic terminus in November 2007. He 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." On the re-opening St Pancras in 2007, a statue of Betjeman by Martin Jennings was erected in the station at platform level.
Betjeman 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. In 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 Leeds to be of "Victorian buildings crashing to the ground". He went on to lambaste John Poulson's building, British Railways House (now City House) saying how it blocked all the light out to City Square and was only a testament to money with no architectural merit. He also praised the architecture of Leeds Town Hall. In 1969 Betjeman contributed the foreword to Derek Linstrum's Historic Architecture of Leeds.
A memorial window, designed by John Piper, is set in All Saints' Church, Farnborough, Berkshire, where Betjeman lived in the adjoining Rectory.
The Betjeman Millennium Park at Wantage in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire), was where he lived from 1951 to 1972 and where he set his book, Archie and the Strict Baptists
The John Betjeman Young People's Poetry Competition 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. The spirit behind the competition is to encourage young people to understand and appreciate the importance of place.
One of the two engines used on the pier railway at Southend-on-Sea is named Sir John Betjeman (the other being Sir William Heygate).
In 2003, to mark their Centenary, the residents of Lissenden Gardens in London put up a plaque to mark Betjeman's birth place.
The statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station by sculptor Martin Jennings was unveiled in 2007.
1960 Queen's Medal for Poetry
1960 CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire)
1968 Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature
1969 Knight Bachelor
1972 Poet Laureate
1973 Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Bird-watching colonels on the old sea wall,
Down here at Dawlish where the slow trains crawl:
Low tide lifting, on a shingle shore,
Long-sunk islands from the sea once more:
Red cliffs rising where the wet sands run,
Gulls reflecting in the sharp spring sun;
Pink-washed plaster by a sheltered patch,
Ilex shadows upon velvet thatch:
What interiors those names suggest!
Queen of lodgings in the warm south-west….