a short biography of Sir John Betjeman




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A short biography of

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 born to a middle-class family in Edwardian Hampstead. Although he claimed he failed his degree at Oxford University, his early ability in writing poetry and interest in architecture supported him throughout his life. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as British Poet Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television.


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 Hill Mansions on the bottom edge of Hampstead Heath 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 so loved by Victorians. His father's forebears had come from the Netherlands,[1] 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 Highgate, where, from West Hill, in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate, they could look down on those less fortunate:

    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.[2]

Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the poet T. S. Eliot, after which he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. While at school, reading the works of Arthur Machen won him over to an allegiance to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of vital importance personally and for his later writing and interest in art and architecture. He was also influenced by the ghost stories of M. R. James and attributed his interest in old churches, etc. to these tales in his introduction to a book about M. R. James by Peter Haining He was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard.

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 return considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired as a teacher. Betjeman disliked the coursework's emphasis on linguistics and he dedicated most of his time to cultivating an active social life, to 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." The facts of the matter are, however, more complicated. In Hilary Term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He was rusticated (i.e., temporarily sent down) for Trinity Term to prepare for a retake of the exam and was permitted to return in October. Meanwhile, he wrote to G.C. Lee, secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, stating his position and 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). It is thus also a myth (promulgated by Betjeman in Summoned by Bells) that Lewis said "You'd have only got a third" (i.e., a third-class honours degree); rather, 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, which was the occasion of Betjeman's famous decision to offer a paper in Welsh. The story told by Osbert Lancaster that a tutor was engaged twice a week by train (first class) from Aberystwyth is probably also apocryphal, since Jesus College had a number of Welsh tutors who would have taught him. Betjeman was finally sent down, permanently this time, at the end of Michaelmas Term 1928.[3] 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, having achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers (on Shakespeare and other English authors).[4]

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 continued to nurse 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. After some freelance pieces for the Architectural Review he was employed on its full-time staff as an assistant editor between 1930 and 1935. Up to this point Betjeman had been an admirer of Victorian decoration; he changed his views, or bit his tongue, while writing for The Review — 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 and a daughter, Paula (better known as Candida, now Candida Lycett Green), in 1942.

The Shell Guides, a series of guides to the counties of Britain, came from an idea developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd. The guides were aimed at Britain's growing number of motorists who drove out to churches and historical sites at weekends. 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, which was a neutral country. He may have been involved with intelligence gathering and is reported to have been selected for assassination by the IRA until they decided that a published poet was unlikely to be involved in such work. Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland.

After the Second World War

Betjeman's house at Cloth Fair in the City

Betjeman's house at Cloth Fair in the City

Penelope Betjeman became a Roman Catholic in 1948, and the couple drifted apart. 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. His work was not limited to these activities; he was a founder member of The Victorian Society in 1958 and put great effort into the protection of old buildings of architectural merit which were in danger of demolition. Betjeman was also closely associated with the culture and spirit of Metro-land, the name by which the 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, which was directed by Edward Mirzoeff. In the centenary of his birth in 2006, his daughter led two celebratory railway trips: one from London to Bristol, the other, through Metro-land, to Quainton Road.

He fought a spirited, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Arch, although he was victorious in the battle to preserve the iconic Gothic hotel at St Pancras Station.

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,

    Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all.

John Betjeman's grave

John Betjeman's grave


    I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.

    In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill [5]

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 intermittend hope,

    God grant before we die we all

    May see the light as did St. Paul.

Betjeman was, however, deeply insecure, and this imbued his writings.

He became Poet Laureate in 1972, and this combined with his popularity as a television performer ensured that his poetry eventually reached an audience enormous by poetic standards. Like 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 (not nearly as simple as they might appear).

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 that they should house the Theatre Museum.

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.

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[6]. His grave can be seen on the right, immediately after passing through the entrance gate into the churchyard.

In popular culture since his death

A number of memorials have been created to Betjeman's memory, including a window designed by John Piper at All Saints' Church, Farnborough in Berkshire, where Betjeman lived at the adjoining Rectory. There is also the Betjeman Millennium Park at nearby Wantage in Oxfordshire (formerly in Berkshire), where he had lived from 1951 to 1972 and where he set his book, Archie and the Strict Baptists.

Madness frontman Suggs - named a Betjeman track, On a Portrait of a Deaf Man, as one of his Desert Island Discs[7]

In 7 May 2007 excerpts of John Betjeman's poem "The Cockney Amorist" were used in the song Sheila by Jamie T " - It got to #15 in the UK Singles Chart. The sample was taken of the album Banana Blush.

    Oh when my love, my darling,

    You've left me here alone,

    I'll walk the streets of London

    Which once seemed all our own.

    The vast suburban churches

    Together we have found

    The ones which smelt of gaslight

    The ones in incense drown'd

"Everyday Is Like Sunday" a song by the singer songwriter Morrissey 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". [8]


    * 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.

Betjeman and architecture

Betjeman had a special fondness for Victorian architecture and was a great Victorian Society activist, actively leading the campaign to save Holy Trinity Sloane Street when it was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s.[9] He is considered instrumental in helping to save the famous facade of St. Pancras railway station in London and was commemorated when it reopened as an internatonal 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.[10]

Betjeman Statue in St Pancras

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.[by whom?] 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.

The Works of Sir John Betjeman