Aug 282017
 

Today is the birthday (1906) of Sir John Betjeman, English poet, writer, and broadcaster who described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”. He was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death. In his own words:

I was born in London and so were my parents. I have lived in London most of my life. I was born in 1906. I am a poet and prose-writer, particularly on English architecture and topography. I founded and for many years edited the Shell Guides. I edited Collins’ Guide to English Parish Churches. I started in journalism as Assistant Editor of the Architectural Review. I was for some years architectural correspondent to the Daily Telegraph. I am a Companion of Literature and an Honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Until my extended term of office expired last year. I was a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission. I am an honorary advisor to the Historic Buildings Committee of the GLC and one of her Majesty’s Commissioners of Ancient Monuments.

I’ll add a (very) little to this, but mostly appraise his poetry. Betjeman is a bit of a kindred spirit of mine in a way. He detested Oxford University teaching but enjoyed the overall experience (particularly the libraries and the fellow students), loved the English countryside, traveled a great deal, and saw humor in even mundane things.  Where we part company is in our view of England in general. His England was a comforting and reassuring home for him, full of foibles that could be endearing or irritating.  I mostly find the country irritating, with endearing bits around the edges.

Betjeman was born “John Betjemann”. 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. The family name was changed to the less German-looking “Betjeman” during the First World War. His father’s forebears had actually come from the present-day Netherlands and had, ironically, added the extra “-n” during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War to avoid the anti-Dutch sentiment existing at the time, more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, in north London.

Betjeman was baptized 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. Betjeman’s early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by 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. 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 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 uninspired 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.

Here I resonate very much with Betjeman.  I have no doubt that Lewis was a self-important prick who looked down on his students. His writings on Christianity are grotesquely simplistic and the Chronicles of Narnia are not much better – 19th century “muscular Christianity” dressed up as fantasy. He was the quintessence of the Oxford scholar I could not stomach at any cost: thinking that all things in the world worth knowing are contained within half a mile of Carfax, and the top of Magdalen tower is the pinnacle of the universe.

At Oxford Betjeman 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 famously 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.

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. 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 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. He did pass his Divinity examination on his third try but was sent down (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.

This all seems wearily familiar. The vast bulk of my friends at Oxford plodded through their work and got average degrees before settling into a lifetime of drudgery in civil service, the military, or middle management; a sprinkling were meteorically successful so that I include among my erstwhile companions, Nobel laureates, knights bachelor, Oxford college heads, bishops, and the like; and a few, like myself and Betjeman, found the academic system laughably rigid and stupid, and so spent our time educating ourselves in the things that mattered to us and, having barely crawled through the examinations, found successes in various arenas of life.

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. W.H. Auden (an Oxford friend) wrote in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined that Betjeman was “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.

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.”

Here’s one of his earliest poems which I like partly because its appraisal of death is, at best, comically sardonic, and partly because I lived for a year in Leamington which is the perfectly lackluster setting for a lackluster demise.

Death In Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And “Tea!” she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

Some of his poems have been set, quite successfully, to music. This one, “A Shropshire Lad,” concerning the death of Capt. Webb, famed channel swimmer (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/captain-webb/ ), has been popular among my friends for years.

His pre-war poem (1937), “Slough,” takes issue with the general quality of life in the new Trading Estate in Slough with its grimy and faceless factories, opening with the now famous lines:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now . . .

Bombs did, in fact, fall on Slough during the Second World War and Betjeman later repudiated the poem although it was not written so much about Slough in particular but about burgeoning industrial growth in general. On the centenary of Betjeman’s birth in 2006, his daughter, Candida Lycett-Green, visited Slough and apologized for the poem saying her father “regretted having ever written it”. During her visit, Mrs Lycett-Green presented the mayor of Slough, David MacIsaac, with a book of her father’s poems. In it she wrote: “We love Slough”.

In the first series of The Office, which is set in Slough, Ricky Gervais, in the character of David Brent, reads extracts of the poem interjected with comments such as, “You don’t solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place.”

In his deeply ironic “In Westminster Abbey” Betjeman shows his true feelings for people who pray for bombs to fall:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
    Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
   We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.
 

Keep our Empire undismembered
    Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
    Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

 

Betjeman loved Victorian architecture and crusaded in its favor at a time when Victorian arts in general were lampooned as outdated and cluttered monstrosities. His statue stands outside St Pancras station in London which was in danger of being torn down until he put up a vigorous campaign to stop the destruction.

Victorian desserts are similarly ornately over the top so go for broke.

Meanwhile I’ll go with something a little less flamboyant in looks, but outrageously delicious: apple snow.  First, Mrs Beeton:

APPLE SNOW.

(A pretty Supper Dish.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—10 good-sized apples, the whites of 10 eggs, the rind of 1 lemon, 1/2 lb. of pounded sugar.

Mode.—Peel, core, and cut the apples into quarters, and put them into a saucepan with the lemon-peel and sufficient water to prevent them from burning,—rather less than 1/2 pint. When they are tender, take out the peel, beat them to a pulp, let them cool, and stir them to the whites of the eggs, which should be previously beaten to a strong froth. Add the sifted sugar, and continue the whisking until the mixture becomes quite stiff; and either heap it on a glass dish, or serve it in small glasses. The dish may be garnished with preserved barberries, or strips of bright-coloured jelly; and a dish of custards should be served with it, or a jug of cream.

Time.—From 30 to 40 minutes to stew the apples.

Average cost, 1s. 6d.

Sufficient to fill a moderate-sized glass dish.

Seasonable from July to March.

Next a video of an even more decadent recipe for apple snow that includes the cream that Beeton serves on the side.

Apr 122016
 

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On this date in 1937 Frank Whittle ground tested the first ever turbojet which he had virtually single handedly designed and built. Whittle’s whole life story is one of triumph over obstacles by sheer guts and determination. His story is also one of brilliance versus the stupidity of “the system,” a story that is seemingly endlessly retold.

Whittle was born in Earlsdon, Coventry, in 1907, and when he was nine years old, the family moved to Royal Leamington Spa where his father, a highly inventive practical engineer and mechanic, purchased the Leamington Valve and Piston Ring Company.  Frank followed in his father’s footsteps at an early age, learning to use the equipment at his father’s company. At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join the RAF.

In January 1923, having passed the RAF entrance examination with a high mark, Whittle reported to RAF Halton as an Aircraft Apprentice. He lasted only two days: being just five feet tall and with a small chest measurement, he failed the medical. He then put himself through a vigorous training program and special diet devised by a physical training instructor at Halton to build up his physique, only to fail again six months later, when he was told that he could not be given a second chance, despite having added three inches to his height and chest. Undeterred, he applied again under an assumed name and presented himself as a candidate at the No 2 School of Technical Training RAF Cranwell. This time he passed the physical and, in September that year, 364365 Boy Whittle, F started his three-year training as an aircraft mechanic.

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Whittle hated the strict discipline imposed on apprentices and, convinced there was no hope of ever becoming a pilot he at one time seriously considered deserting. However, throughout his early days as an aircraft apprentice (and at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell), he maintained his interest in model aircraft and joined the Model Aircraft Society, where he built working replicas. The quality of these attracted the eye of the Apprentice Wing commanding officer, who noted that Whittle was also a mathematical genius. He was so impressed that in 1926 he recommended Whittle for officer training at RAF College Cranwell.

Whittle’s officer training included flying lessons on the Avro 504. He excelled in all his courses and had his first solo flight in 1927 after only 13.5 hours instruction, quickly progressing to the Bristol Fighter and gaining a reputation for daredevil low flying and aerobatics. A requirement of the course was that each student had to produce a thesis for graduation: Whittle decided to write his on potential aircraft design developments, notably flight at high altitudes and speeds over 500 mph (800 km/h). In Future Developments in Aircraft Design he showed that incremental improvements in existing propeller engines were unlikely to make such flight routine. Instead he described what is today referred to as a motorjet; a motor using a conventional piston engine to provide compressed air to a combustion chamber whose exhaust was used directly for thrust – essentially an afterburner attached to a propeller engine.

Whittle graduated in 1928 at the age of 21 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in July. He ranked second in his class in academics, won the Andy Fellowes Memorial Prize for Aeronautical Sciences for his thesis, and was described as an “exceptional to above average” pilot. However, his flight logbook also showed numerous red ink warnings about showboating and overconfidence, and because of dangerous flying in an Armstrong Whitworth Siskin he was disqualified from the end of term flying contest.

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Whittle continued working on the motorjet principle after his thesis work but eventually abandoned it when further calculations showed it would weigh as much as a conventional engine of the same thrust. Pondering the problem he wrote, “Why not substitute a turbine for the piston engine?” Instead of using a piston engine to provide the compressed air for the burner, a turbine could be used to extract some power from the exhaust and drive a similar compressor to those used for superchargers. The remaining exhaust thrust would power the aircraft.

On 27 August 1928 Whittle joined No. 111 Squadron, Hornchurch, flying Siskin IIIs. His continuing reputation for low flying and aerobatics provoked a public complaint that almost led to his being court-martialed. Within a year he was posted to Central Flying School, Wittering, for a flying instructor’s course. He became a popular and gifted instructor, and was selected as one of the entrants in a competition to select a team to perform the “crazy flying” routine in the 1930 Royal Air Force Air Display at RAF Hendon. He destroyed two aircraft in accidents during rehearsals but remained unscathed on both occasions. After the second incident an enraged Flight Lieutenant Harold W. Raeburn said furiously, “Why don’t you take all my bloody aeroplanes, make a heap of them in the middle of the aerodrome and set fire to them – it’s quicker!”

Whittle showed his engine concept around the base, where it attracted the attention of Flying Officer Pat Johnson, formerly a patent examiner. Johnson, in turn, took the concept to the commanding officer of the base. This set in motion a chain of events that almost led to the engines being produced much sooner than actually occurred. Encouraged by his commanding officer, in late 1929 Whittle sent his concept of the turbojet to the Air Ministry to see if it would be of any interest to them. The RAF returned his comment to Whittle, referring to the design as being “impracticable”.

Pat Johnson remained convinced of the validity of the idea, and had Whittle patent the idea in January 1930. Since the RAF was not interested in the concept they did not declare it secret, meaning that Whittle was able to retain the rights to the idea, which would have otherwise been their property. Johnson arranged a meeting with British Thomson-Houston (BTH), whose chief turbine engineer seemed to agree with the basic idea. However, BTH did not want to spend the ₤60,000 it would cost to develop it, and this potential brush with early success went no further.

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In 1931, Whittle was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe as an armament officer and test pilot of seaplanes, where he continued to publicize his idea. This posting came as a surprise for he had never previously flown a seaplane, but he nevertheless increased his reputation as a pilot by flying some 20 different types of floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibians. Every officer with a permanent commission was expected to take a specialist course, and as a result Whittle attended the Officers’ Engineering Course at RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire in 1932. He obtained an aggregate of 98% in all subjects in his exams, completing the course in 18 months instead of the more normal two years. His performance in the course was so exceptional that in 1934 he was permitted to take a two-year engineering course at Cambridge University, graduating in 1936 with a First in the Mechanical Sciences Tripos.

Still at Cambridge, Whittle could not afford the £5 renewal fee for his jet engine patent when it became due in January 1935, and because the Air Ministry refused to pay it, the patent was allowed to lapse. Shortly afterwards, in May, he received mail from Rolf Dudley-Williams, who had been with him at Cranwell in the 1920s and Felixstowe in 1930. Williams arranged a meeting with Whittle, himself, and another now-retired RAF serviceman, James Collingwood Tinling. The two proposed a partnership that allowed them to act on Whittle’s behalf to gather public financing so that development could go ahead.

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In 1935, through Tinling’s father, Whittle was introduced to Mogens L. Bramson, a well-known independent consulting aeronautical engineer. Bramson was initially skeptical but after studying Whittle’s ideas became an enthusiastic supporter. Bramson introduced Whittle and his two associates to the investment bank O.T. Falk & Partners, where discussions took place with Lancelot Law Whyte and occasionally Sir Maurice Bonham-Carter. The firm had an interest in developing speculative projects that conventional banks would not touch. Whyte was impressed by the 28-year-old Whittle and his design when they met on 11 September 1935:

The impression he made was overwhelming, I have never been so quickly convinced, or so happy to find one’s highest standards met. This was genius, not talent. Whittle expressed his idea with superb conciseness: ‘Reciprocating engines are exhausted. They have hundreds of parts jerking to and fro, and they cannot be made more powerful without becoming too complicated. The engine of the future must produce 2,000 hp with one moving part: a spinning turbine and compressor.’

On 27 January 1936, the principals signed the “Four Party Agreement”, creating “Power Jets Ltd” which was incorporated in March 1936. The parties were O.T. Falk & Partners, the Air Ministry, Whittle and, together, Williams and Tinling. Whittle, Williams and Tinling retained a 49% share of the company in exchange for Falk and Partners putting in £2,000 with the option of a further £18,000 within 18 months. As Whittle was still a full-time RAF officer and currently at Cambridge, he was given the title “Honorary Chief Engineer and Technical Consultant”. Needing special permission to work outside the RAF, he was placed on the Special Duty List and allowed to work on the design as long as it was for no more than six hours a week. However he was allowed to continue at Cambridge for a year doing post-graduate work which gave him time to work on the turbojet.

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The Air Ministry still saw little immediate value in the effort (they regarded it as long-range research), and having no production facilities of its own, Power Jets entered into an agreement with steam turbine specialists British Thomson-Houston (BTH) to build an experimental engine facility at a BTH factory in Rugby, Warwickshire. Work progressed quickly, and by the end of the year 1936 the prototype detail design was finalized and parts for it were well on their way to being completed, all within the original £2,000 budget.

The government and RAF still displayed complete indifference, so Falk and Partners gave notice that they could not provide funding beyond £5,000. Nevertheless Whittle’s team pressed ahead, and the W.U. (Whittle Unit) engine ran in a ground test successfully on 12 April 1937. Tizard pronounced it “streaks ahead” of any other advanced engine he had seen, and managed to interest the Air Ministry enough to fund development with a contract for £5,000 to develop a flyable version. However, it was a year before the funds were made available, greatly delaying development. Whittle was ultimately successful in using his jet in prototype aircraft but one does have to wonder what took officialdom so long to recognize the clear advantage of jets over propellers, and to be inspired by Whittle’s dogged insistence on the rightness of his vision.

Last Night A Short Flight Was Completed

As an RAF pilot Whittle was stationed in a number of places in Britain, but he was not only native to Warwickshire (Coventry and Leamington), but developed the jet there too (Rugby).  I’m very familiar with that part of the country, having lived and worked in Leamington for a time after Oxford, and also having relatives near Coventry. I have especially fond memories of Coventry godcakes which are common in regional bakeries, but you won’t find elsewhere.  Folklore has it that they were originally given as gifts to new parents by godparents. Sounds like a simple rationalization of the name to me.  Nonetheless, they are delicious and easy to make.

All you need are some puff pastry and mincemeat. Puff pastry is a real trial to make, so I rarely make it from scratch these days (see  yesterday’s post http://www.bookofdaystales.com/william-and-mary/ ) Instead I buy it readymade. If you’re lazy you can buy readymade mincemeat too, but I always make my own. However, I make it only at Christmas, so godcakes are a seasonal treat for me nowadays.

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Coventry Godcakes

Cut puff pastry into 4” squares. Place 1 tablespoon of mincemeat towards the edge of one of the points of the square. Brush the edges of the pastry with melted butter , then fold over the pastry diagonally to make a triangle to encase the mincemeat, pressing the edges together. Cut three parallel slits in the top, brush with melted butter, and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until the godcakes are golden. They are best eaten warm from the oven.