|Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom|
20 October 1972 –19 May 1984
|Preceded by||Cecil Day-Lewis|
|Succeeded by||Ted Hughes|
28 August 1906
Lissenden Gardens, London, England
|Died||19 May 1984 77) (aged|
Trebetherick, Cornwall, England
|Domestic partner||Lady Elizabeth Cavendish|
|Children||2 including Candida Lycett Green|
|Alma mater||Magdalen College, Oxford|
|Occupation||Poet, writer, broadcaster|
Sir John Betjeman // ; 28 August 1906 –19 May 1984) was an English poet, writer, and broadcaster. He was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death. He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture, helping to save St Pancras railway station from demolition. He began his career as a journalist and ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television.(
Betjeman was born John Betjemann. He was the son of a prosperous silverware maker of Dutch descent. His parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, had a family firm at 34–42 Pentonville Road which manufactured the kind of ornamental household furniture and gadgets distinctive to Victorians.
During the First World War the family name was changed to the less German-looking Betjeman. His father's forebears had actually come from the present day Netherlands more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, London, and during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War had, ironically, added the extra "-n" to avoid the anti-Dutch sentiment existing at the time.
Betjeman was baptised at St Anne's Church, Highgate Rise, a 19th-century church at the foot of Highgate West Hill. The family lived at Parliament Hill Mansions in the Lissenden Gardens private estate in Gospel Oak in north London.
In 1909, the Betjemanns moved 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 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 Amiciin which he was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. He founded The Heretick , a satirical magazine that lampooned Marlborough's obsession with sport. 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. Betjeman left Marlborough in July 1925.
Betjeman entered the University of Oxford with 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 uninspiring as a teacher.Betjeman particularly disliked the coursework's emphasis on linguistics, and dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life and his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits.
At Oxford, he was a friend of Maurice Bowra, later (1938 to 1970) to be Warden of Wadham. Betjeman had a poem published in Isis , the university magazine, and served as 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 brought his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore up to Magdalen with him, the memory of which 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 colloquially as "Divvers", short for "Divinity". In Hilary term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university 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 Summoned by Bells Betjeman claims that his tutor, C. S. Lewis, said "You'd have only got a third" – but he 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 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 expelled 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 with 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. Whilst there, however, he had made the acquaintance of people who would later influence his work, including Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden.He worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard , where he also wrote for their high-society gossip column, the Londoner's Diary. 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. Timothy 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.
Betjeman's sexuality can best be described as bisexual, and his longest and best documented relationships were with women, and a fairer analysis of his sexuality may be that he was "the hatcher of a lifetime of schoolboy crushes – both gay and straight", most of which progressed no further.Nevertheless, he has been considered "temperamentally gay", and even became a penpal of Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas of Oscar Wilde fame. 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, Candida, in 1942. In 1937, Betjeman was a churchwarden at Uffington, the Berkshire village (in Oxfordshire since boundary changes of 1974) where he lived. That year, he paid for the cleaning of the church's royal arms and later presided over the conversion of the church's oil lamps to electricity.
The Shell Guides were developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd, 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) were 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 military 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 neutral Dublin, Ireland, working with Sir John Maffey. His secretary in Dublin was the journalist and writer Shevawn Lynam, the author of the novel The Spirit and the Clay , about the resistance to Francoism in the Basque Country. Betjeman may have been involved with the gathering of intelligence. He is reported to have been selected for murder by the IRA.The order was rescinded after a meeting with an unnamed Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.
Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland during the "Emergency" (the war) including "The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922" (written during the war) which contained the refrain "Dungarvan in the rain". The object of his affections, "Greta", has remained a mystery until recently revealed to have been a member of a well-known Anglo-Irish family of Western county Waterford. 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. From March to November 1944 Betjeman was assigned to another wartime job, working on publicity for the Admiralty in Bath.
Betjeman's wife Penelope 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. mm and running 11 minutes and 35 seconds, it was first shown on the BBC's Monitor . In 1953 his address was the Old Rectory, Farnborough, Wantage, Berkshire.The popularity of the book prompted Ken Russell to make a film about him, John Betjeman: A Poet in London (1959). Filmed in 35
He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. He was a founder member of the Victorian Society (1958). Betjeman was 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: from London to Bristol, and through Metro-land, to Quainton Road. In 1974, Betjeman and Mirzoeff followed up Metro-Land with A Passion for Churches , a celebration of Betjeman's beloved Church of England, filmed entirely in the Diocese of Norwich. 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. In 1977 the BBC broadcast "The Queen's Realm: A Prospect of England", an aerial anthology of English landscape, music and poetry, selected by Betjeman and produced by Edward Mirzoeff, in celebration of the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
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 nearby 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 Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears. "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 an Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems. In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: “Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces."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 of the United Kingdom in 1972, the first Knight Bachelor to be appointed (the only other, Sir William Davenant, was knighted after his appointment). This role, combined with his popularity as a television performer, ensured that his poetry 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 Betjeman's Banana Blush (1974) and Late Flowering Love (1974), where his poetry reading is set to music with overdubbing by leading musicians of the time. His recording catalogue extends to nine albums, four singles and two compilations.
Prompted by the rapid development of the Buckinghamshire town before World War II, Betjeman wrote the ten-stanza poem Slough to express his dismay at the industrialisation of Britain. He later came to regret having written it. The poem was first included in his 1937 collection Continual Dew .
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
Betjeman had a fondness for Victorian architecture at a time when it was unfashionable and was a founding member of the Victorian Society.He wrote on this subject in First and Last Loves (1952) and more extensively in London's Historic Railway Stations in 1972, defending the beauty of 12 stations. He led the campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in London when it was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s. He was also a founding member of the Friends of Friendless Churches in 1957.
He fought a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Arch, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to save St Pancras railway station, London, and was commemorated when it became an international terminus for Eurostar in November 2007. He called the plan to demolish St Pancras a "criminal folly".About it 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 reopening of St Pancras station in 2007, the Statue of John Betjeman was commissioned from curators Futurecity. A proposal by artist Martin Jennings was selected from a shortlist. The finished work was erected in the station at platform level, including a series of slate roundels depicting selections of Betjeman's writings.
Betjeman was given the remaining two-year lease on Victorian Gothic architect William Burges's Tower House in Holland Park upon leaseholder Mrs E. R. B. Graham's death in 1962.Betjeman felt he could not afford the financial implications of taking over the house permanently, with his potential liability for £10,000 of renovations upon the expiry of the lease. After damage from vandals, restoration began in 1966. Betjeman's lease included furniture from the house by Burges and Betjeman gave three pieces, the Zodiac settle, the Narcissus washstand and the Philosophy cabinet, to Evelyn Waugh.
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 he wrote
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 lambast John Poulson's 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.
Betjeman was for over 20 years a trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust and was vice-president from 1965 to 1971, at a time when Bath—a city rich in Georgian architecture—was coming under increasing pressure from modern developers and a road had been proposed to cut across it. 440 He also created a short television documentary called Architecture of Bath, in which he voiced his concerns about the way the city's architectural heritage was being mistreated. From 1946 to 1948 he had served as Secretary to the Oxford Preservation Trust. Betjeman was also instrumental in saving the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Plymouth.:
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings annually presents a John Betjeman award to recognise the repair and conservation of places of worship in England and Wales.
The John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People began in 2006 and was open to 10- to 13-year-olds living anywhere in the British Isles (including the Republic of Ireland), with a first prize of £1,000. In addition to prizes for individual finalists, state schools who enter pupils may win one of six one-day poetry workshops.In 2020 Private Eye reported that the prize was to close after thirteen years.
Some works include:
Edward James Hughes was an English poet, translator, and children's writer. Critics frequently rank him as one of the best poets of his generation and one of the twentieth century's greatest writers. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984 and held the office until his death. In 2008 The Times ranked Hughes fourth on their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
Philip Arthur Larkin was an English poet, novelist, and librarian. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945, followed by two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947), and he came to prominence in 1955 with the publication of his second collection of poems, The Less Deceived, followed by The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). He contributed to The Daily Telegraph as its jazz critic from 1961 to 1971, articles gathered in All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71 (1985), and he edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (1973). His many honours include the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was offered, but declined, the position of Poet Laureate in 1984, following the death of Sir John Betjeman.
Sir Andrew Motion is an English poet, novelist, and biographer, who was Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009. During the period of his laureateship, Motion founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work. In 2012, he became President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, taking over from Bill Bryson.
George Mackay Brown was a poet, author and dramatist, whose work has a distinctly Orcadian character. He is considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century.
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Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860–1944) was an English clergyman and Uranian poet and novelist. He attended Exeter College, Oxford, received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884, and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree. He was vicar of Nordelph, Downham Market, Norfolk, from 1909 to 1944. Towards the beginning of his life Bradford was an Anglo-Catholic but he subsequently became a Modernist. He was at one time a great friend of S. E. Cottam with whom he had been an undergraduate classmate.
Geoffrey Edward Harvey Grigson was a British poet, writer, editor, critic, exhibition curator, anthologist and naturalist. In the 1930s he was editor of the influential magazine New Verse, and went on to produce 13 collections of his own poetry, as well as compiling numerous anthologies, among many published works on subjects including art, travel and the countryside. Grigson exhibited in the London International Surrealist Exhibition at New Burlington Galleries in 1936, and in 1946 co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Grigson's autobiography The Crest on the Silver was published in 1950. At various times he was involved in teaching, journalism and broadcasting. Fiercely combative, he made many literary enemies.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is an amenity society founded by William Morris, Philip Webb and others, in 1877; to oppose what they saw as destructive 'restoration' of ancient buildings then occurring in Victorian England; 'ancient' being used in the wider sense of 'very old' rather than the more usual modern one of 'pre-medieval'.
"Slough" is a ten-stanza poem by Sir John Betjeman, first published in his 1937 collection Continual Dew.
Peter Neville Frederick Porter OAM was a British-based Australian poet.
Summoned by Bells, the blank verse autobiography by John Betjeman, describes his life from his early memories of a middle-class home in Edwardian Hampstead, London, to his premature departure from Magdalen College, Oxford.
Edward Mirzoeff CVO, CBE is a prominent British television producer and documentary filmmaker.
Archibald Ormsby-Gore, better known as Archie, was the teddy-bear of English poet laureate John Betjeman. Together with a toy elephant known as Jumbo, he was a lifelong companion of Betjeman's.
Candida Rose Lycett Green was a British author who wrote sixteen books including English Cottages, Goodbye London, The Perfect English House, Over the Hills and Far Away and The Dangerous Edge of Things. Her television documentaries included The Englishwoman and the Horse, and The Front Garden. Unwrecked England, based on a regular column of the same name she wrote for The Oldie since 1992, was published in 2009.
Samuel Elsworth Cottam (1863–1943) was an English poet and Anglican priest.
Sir John Betjeman (1906–1984) was a twentieth-century English poet, writer and broadcaster. Born to a middle-class family in Edwardian Hampstead, he attended Oxford University, although left without graduating. He turned down a position in the family furniture business, and instead took a series of jobs before becoming the assistant editor of The Architectural Review in 1931, which reflected a deeply held affection for buildings and their history. That same year he published his first book, Mount Zion, a collection of poems.
A Passion for Churches is a 1974 BBC television documentary written and presented by the then Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman and produced and directed by Edward Mirzoeff. Commissioned as a follow-up to the critically acclaimed 1973 documentary Metro-land, the film offers Betjeman's personal poetic record of the goings-on taking place throughout the Anglican Diocese of Norwich and its churches in the run-up to Easter Sunday using the framing device of the Holy sacraments.
The T. S. Eliot bibliography contains a list of works by T. S. Eliot.
John Clive Hall was an English poet and editor.
The statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras railway station, London is a depiction in bronze by the sculptor Martin Jennings. The statue was designed and cast in 2007 and was unveiled on 12 November 2007 by Betjeman's daughter, Candida Lycett Green and the then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion to commemorate Betjeman and mark the opening of St Pancras International as the London terminus of the Eurostar high-speed rail link between Great Britain and mainland Europe. The location memorialises the connection between St Pancras station and Betjeman, an early and lifelong advocate of Victorian architecture.
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