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John Betjeman had the last laugh Forty years after his death, he still wields influence

Sir John Betjeman (Credit: Stuart William MacGladrie/Fairfax Media/Getty).

Sir John Betjeman (Credit: Stuart William MacGladrie/Fairfax Media/Getty).


May 22, 2024   5 mins

“Any fool can make money these days”, says Colonel Cargill in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, “and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.” “T. S. Eliot”, ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself.”

Imagine, for a moment, Catch 22 reset in England at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cargill, asking the same question, might hear the name John Betjeman in response. First published in 1958, Betjeman’s Collected Poems has sold well over two-and-a-half million copies. It remains in print 40 years after his death. “I made hay while the sun shone,” he said. ‘My work sold.”

Barry Humphries, in 2006, recalled generous lunches in Smithfield with Betjeman and friends, among them Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Osbert Lancaster, “and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two”. At Coleman’s Chop House (long gone) on Aldersgate Street, “we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussel Sprouts and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews. John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’”

Serendipitously, T.S. Eliot taught the young John Betjeman English at Highgate Junior School. This was 1914-15. Beyond the classroom, Eliot was writing his epoch changing “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Nine-year-old Betjeman presented Eliot with his handwritten The Best Poems of Betjeman. Years later, the two profitable poets, the profound Modernist and the popular Traditionalist, became friends.

Where, though, Eliot received rightful and even reverential critical praise especially from schoolteachers and university tutors, Betjeman, however successful in terms of book sales and appearances on the telly, was labelled superficial by TLS readers. They worshipped Eliot, though even though he too could also be the populist, his enchanting, lyrical Old Possums’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), conjured into “Cats”, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hugely successful musical.

Betjeman’s tentative brush with Modernism was short-lived. In 1929, he was appointed Assistant Editor of the Architectural Review. To keep up with the times, and the fads of Hubert de Cronin Hastings, his mercurial and brilliant editor, he joined MARS (Modern Architecture Research Group). One of its members, Maxwell Fry, who went on to work with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, and with Le Corbusier at Chandigarh, had no difficulty seeing through Betjeman’s ill-fitting Modernist disguise.

“The key to John Betjeman’s character”, snorted Fry perceptively if priggishly, “is that he’s a journalist and a Fleet Street man – and a popularist – and vain … an enemy of Modernism… As far as I was concerned, he was a bloody nuisance.”

Or was he a complex character, brimming with contradictions? In between writing articles, among them “The Death of Modernism” in 1931, and laying out pages of the “Archie” in the most old-fashioned and shocking types he could find,, Betjeman and Hastings wrote, Fry said, “weird letters to sex papers full of Freudian hang-ups. Freudianism was all the rage then”.

Sex and Betjeman’s painful relationship with his father, Ernest Betjemann (note the double ‘n’), provided the profound sense of guilt and sadness that, insinuating its way through its so-easily-recitable verses, was to make his poetry far more than charming whimsy. Ernest had hoped John would join his cabinet-making firm and take it on after he retired. John had no intention of doing so, telling his father as much and selling the beloved family business to Puddlefoot, Bowers & Simonett & Sons, ivory and ebony merchants of Kennington Lane, in 1938, four years after Ernest’s death.

“Betjeman could be saccharine, sarcastic, silly, snobbish and unexpectedly profound.”

Betjeman had already hurt his father, dropping that second “n” from his surname after his bullying at school during the First World War. The double “n” was too German for comfort. “Betjeman’s a German spy/Shoot him down and let him die.” He had caused further sadness by going down to Cornwall where his parents were on holiday to tell them he had failed his degree at Oxford. He recalled his father in a fine poem “On a Portrait of a Deaf Man” and in another, “Norfolk”, which ends in “unkept promises and broken hearts”.

His relationship with women — he had a wife, a long-term mistress and a secret lover on the go late in life — produced poems that can seem absurd even to loyal fans. Those big, domineering and sometimes quite grotesque Amazonian “gels”. Those jolly hockey-stick types on bicycles and in Sussex tea rooms. The svelte “mistress” with “more than a cared-for air/ Than many a legal wife” he lusts after in church. Sometimes, though, he is more lyrical. In “A Russell Flint” he writes, “I could not speak for amazement at your beauty/As you came down the Garrick stair”, and in “Youth and Age on Beaulieu River”, of Clemency the General’s daughter, sailing on the Hampshire water, “Soft and sun-warm, see her glide -/Slacks the slim young limbs revealing, /Sun-brown arm the tiller feeling -/With the wind and with the tide”.

There is, though, something unlovable about Betjeman as he writes to Margie Geddes, a rekindled old flamem, after she invited him to a literary luncheon. He replied: “I would love to come to Jersey for the nice fee and also the pleasure of seeing you.” But there is also here despite the guilt and sadness, an indication of Betjeman’s great strength. He was motivated by place. In his poetry he embraces Bootle and Camberley, Pontefract and Cheltenham, Croydon and Slough, Trebetherick and Harrow-on-the-Hill. The “Index of Places and Counties” in Collected Poems occupies five pages of small type.

His London childhood — a densely woven tapestry of trams and tea rooms, churches, dairies, laundries, coal depots, chapels, Home & Colonial Stores and cathedral like main line stations dispatching named steam trains over viaducts and through complex junctions to all points of the British compass — fed young Betjeman’s poetic imagination. So many sensations, such a profusion of special places.

This heightened sense of place only grew as Betjeman spread his wings whether on childhood holidays to Cornwall (an abiding passion) or through the historic buildings he encountered the length and breadth of these islands, each belonging to a particular somewhere — as buildings once did — with a name, lyrical or blunt, that made place, as if inevitably, into poetry. Ryme Intrinseca, Fontwell Magna, Diss.

Betjeman could be saccharine, sarcastic, silly and snobbish. But also unexpectedly profound and passionate. And this is perfectly captured at St Pancras, where his statue gazes up at the epic span of William Barlow’s great train shed framed by George Gilbert Scott’s gloriously Gothic Midland Grand Hotel. The inscription reads: “And in the shadowless unclouded glare, Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where, A misty sealine meets the wash of air. / John Betjeman, 1906 – 1984, poet, who saved this glorious station”.

 


Jonathan Glancey is an architectural critic and writer. His books include Twentieth Century Architecture, Lost Buildings and Spitfire: the Biography


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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

A lovely article. Thank you. I will have to find a copy of his collected poems as I’m only aware of his more waspish side: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!/It isn’t fit for humans now.”

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’ve heard it was the burgeoning industrial estates spreading out around the town he didnt like,and he was right in that. In fact it was meant as a “joke” the way Morecambe & Wise made a running gag out of their pal Des O’Connors singing,but both “jokes” took off and acquired a life of their own,in both cases a little unjustly.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

Well, we actually need industrial estates! Are they ever going to be a new Venice?

A rather snobbish belief in some largely non existent pastoral and blissful past was one of Betjeman’s worst characteristics.

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
1 month ago

“It isn’t fit for people now”. Truer now than when Betjeman wrote it ninety or a hundred years ago – and I live in Slough.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago

Written during WW2, surely?

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
1 month ago

“It isn’t fit for humans now”.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

From what I’ve seen of Slough,I went there this summer to see for myself,it’s fit for the sort of cosmopolitan people of the world who are not parochially tied to one spot in that old fashioned narrow minded way and who think living in a dirty,noisy,full of derelicts shithole is THE LIFE. What ho.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

What a truly misanthropic and nasty comment. Lots of things wrong with much modern town planning – but rubbishing ordinary people – who need to live somewhere – for living in imperfect (or twee?) towns is poor form .

Robert White
Robert White
1 month ago

Summoned by Bells is a joy, as is the album Banana Blush. Search it up on your preferred streaming provider to hear the man himself reading the likes of Indoor Games Near Newbury (what a title). Just watch out, as is always the case with Betjeman, for sudden emotional sucker punches. Beneath the reassuring surfaces there are strong currents.
NB: there are a couple of minor typos in the piece – ‘old flamem’ and a double comma somewhere!

Barry Stokes
Barry Stokes
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert White

Try his poems set to music by John Gould and adapted by David Benedictus in the show Betjemania. A truly sympathetic rendition.

Nick Ainsworth
Nick Ainsworth
1 month ago

I believe it is Colonel Cathcart not Cargill

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
1 month ago

Betjeman’s poems are a portal to a.rich English culture that most people wouldn’t recognise now, even though they were written not that long ago.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Josh Allan

Abba,what’s that funny shaped little stone building over there,in the centre of town. Amma,told me it’s called a church. What’s a church?

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 month ago

Thank you for this splendid tribute from one Magdalen man to another. As am I!

JB ‘ s work in various media has always brought me great joy.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 month ago
Reply to  Mark Gourley

PS there is a fine biography of him by A N Wilson (, another of my heroes)

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

A man born at the wrong time: it’s impossible to fail a degree at Oxford these days, especially if you’re Chinese.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

Only fair to get what you pay for

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

An enjoyable read.

andy young
andy young
1 month ago

I heard a programme on Radio 3, Words & Music I think it was, alternating his poetry with selected music. I’d forgotten just how wonderfully moving, how genuinely profoundly humane, his work can be.
Alan Bennett used to have a tv series years & years ago, 1960s or 70s, which consisted of comedy sketches with occasional Betjemanesque poetry excerpts (read by Michael Hordern?) set against bucolic scenes, gymkhanas & the like. Apparently it’s all been wiped. Sigh.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 month ago

Very well written. Perhaps it is not too late to find that poet within, although English teachers dampened, or worse, that aspiration many years ago.