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 (https://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:
(A pretty Supper Dish.)
- 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.