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John Betjeman: forty years on

  • by JW

“He was a visionary.” [Alan Bennett]


Poet Laurette John Betjeman was associated with several places – from Slough to the West Country – and, famously, Sidmouth, in his ode to the ‘seductive’ town by the sea:

Betjeman verse plaque in Connaught… © John Evans :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

It’s exactly forty years ago since Sir John passed away – with some charming pieces of appreciation happening, including a recent Words and Music, Betjeman’s World on Radio 3, and appraisals of the work and the man, including reconsidering the way in which he was dismissed as a “songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters” evoking an “aroma of lavender and faint musk”.

Interestingly, in a look at “Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin” a decade ago by writer Alan Bennett, who can himself hardly be accused of being twee, we have a spirited defence of John Betjeman:

Betjeman went to Oxford, which he left without taking a degree, and eventually landed up on the staff of the Architectural Review – the ‘Archy Rev ’ as he called it. Because he was one of the first champions of Victorian architecture (as well as of the railway), Betjeman is affectionately regarded as backward-looking, a fuddy-duddy. In fact, he was a visionary, detecting quality in the architecture of all periods, including that most remote of all periods, the recent past.

Moreover, John Betjeman was not only a champion of the vernacular and the modern, but also of nature – with The Story Behind a Harvest Hymn, looking at his parody of a church classic:

The Harvest Hymn by John Betjaman

We spray the fields and scatter
The poison on the ground
So that no wicked wild flowers
Upon our farm be found.
We like whatever helps us
To line our purse with pence;

The twenty-four-hour broiler-
house and neat electric fence.

All concrete sheds around us
And Jaguars in the yard,
The telly lounge and deep-freeze
Are ours from working hard.