Betjeman, Sir John 1906-1984, poet, writer on architecture, and broadcaster, was born 28 August 1906 at 52 Parliament Hill Mansions, north London, the only child of Ernest Betjemann, a furniture manufacturer, and his wife, Mabel Bessie Dawson. The family name, of Dutch or German origin, can be traced back to an immigration in the late eighteenth century. The poet adopted his style of it about the age of twenty-one.
He attended the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College and was active at both in school theatricals and in various forms of writing. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925 but was rusticated three years later after failing in divinity. To his father's deep disappointment he declined to enter the family business, becoming successively a preparatory school master (at Thorpe House School, Gerrard's Cross, and at Heddon Court, Cockfosters, Hertfordshire), assistant editor of the Architectural Review in 1930, and film critic of the London Evening Standard in 1933. Shortly after his marriage that year he moved to a farmhouse in Uffington, in the Vale of White Horse, Berkshire, where his wife was able to keep horses.
His first two collections of poems, Mount Zion (1931) and Continual Dew (1937), showed a poet already fully formed, with the impeccable ear, delight in skill, and assured mastery of a wide range of tones and themes that so distinguished all his subsequent work in verse. In these early volumes, as later, Betjeman moved with perfect assurance from light pieces, vers de société, satirical sketches of muscular padres or philistine businessmen (as in the famously ferocious tirade Slough) to sombre reflections on the impermanence of all human things. In a remarkable variety of metres and manners the poems make an equally clear-cut impression on the reader, never drifting into obscurity and never once tainted with the modernism then fashionable. Here too he gave glimpses of the world of gas-lit Victorian churches and railway stations, of grim provincial cities and leafy suburbs that he was to make his own, not forgetting the grimmer contemporary developments, shopping arcades, and bogus Tudor bars, that he saw effacing it and strove to resist.
These concerns are reflected in his publication of 1933, Ghastly Good Taste, subtitled a depressing story of the rise and fall of English architecture, which attracted more immediate attention than either of his first books of poems. In it he attacked not only modern or modernistic trends but also the other extreme of unthinking antiquarianism, nor had he any time for the safely conventional. While still at school he had become interested in Victorian architecture, thoroughly unmodish as it was at the time. His writings on the subject over the years led to a revival in appreciation of the buildings of that era and paved the way for the eventual founding of the successful Victorian Society. Further afield, he showed among other things his fondness for provincial architecture in his contributions to the Shell series of English county guides, of which the most notable is that on Cornwall, another enthusiasm acquired in boyhood. He had joined the publicity department of Shell in the mid-1930s.
Betjeman's poetical career had begun to flourish with the appearance in 1940 of Old Lights for New Chancels and continued with New Bats in Old Belfries (1945) and A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954). Many of the poems in these three volumes became classics of their time, including Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, A Subaltern's Love-song and How to Get On in Society. His Collected Poems came out in 1958 and went through many impressions. Summoned by Bells is dated 1960, a blank-verse poem of some 2,000 lines that gives an account of his early life up to schoolmastering days with characteristic animation, humour, sadness, and abundance of detail.
Both these volumes were widely successful, the first edition of the Collected Poems selling over 100,000 copies. Betjeman's poetry has continued to enjoy a popularity unknown in this country since the days of Rudyard Kipling [qv.] and A. E. Housman [qv.]. No doubt it was poems like the three mentioned above and the more obviously quaint period pieces that made an immediate appeal. Nor should one underestimate the sheer relief and delight to be felt at the appearance of a poetry of contemporary date that was easy to follow and yielded the almost forgotten pleasures of rhyme and metre expertly handled. Nevertheless it may not be instantly obvious how so strongly personal a poet, one given moreover to evoking characters and places that might seem outside general interest, should have proved so welcome. He is full of nasty jolts for the squeamish too.
The answer must lie in the closeness of the concerns of Betjeman's poetry to the ordinary day-to-day experience of his readers, something else that had been far to seek in the work of his contemporaries. For all the delight in the past, it is the past as seen from and against the present; for all the cherished eccentricities—as such hardly repugnant to British taste anyway—the subject is ourselves and our own world. The point was well made by Philip Larkin [qv.], the friend and admirer who best understood his work: He offers us something we cannot find in any other writer—a gaiety, a sense of the ridiculous, an affection for human beings and how and where they live, a vivid and vivacious portrait of mid-twentieth-century English social life (Philip Larkin, It Could Only Happen in England, 1971, in Required Writing, 1983, pp. 204-18).
In World War II Betjeman volunteered for the RAF but was rejected and joined the films division of the Ministry of Information. He then became UK press attaché in Dublin (1941-3) to Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby) [qv.] and subsequently worked in P branch (a secret department) in the Admiralty, Bath. In 1945 he moved to Farnborough and in 1951 to Wantage where his wife opened a tea shop, King Alfred's Kitchen. By the mid-1950s his main income came from book reviewing, broadcasting, and his poems. He pursued a highly successful career as a broadcaster, and with the help of the image he projected through television, engaging, diffident, exuberant, often launched on some architectural or decorative enthusiasm, he became a celebrated and much-loved figure in national life. He used this position to further zealously the defence of many buildings threatened with demolition. He was able to save many of these, from St Pancras station to Sweeting's fish restaurant in the City of London, though the Euston Arch was lost despite his vigorous campaign. Appropriately, it was at St Pancras, naming a British Rail locomotive after himself, that he was to make his last public appearance on 24 June 1983.
In later years Betjeman continued his work in poetry, publishing High and Low in 1966 and A Nip in the Air in 1974. The contents of these two volumes reveal no loss of energy; indeed, poems like On Leaving Wantage 1972 embody a melancholy, even a tragic, power he had never surpassed. All the same, apart from the ebulliently satirical Executive, almost none of them have achieved much individual popularity. They were incorporated entire in the fourth edition of the Collected Poems in 1979. Those in Uncollected Poems (1982) were such as the poet was content should remain in that state and are unlikely to gain him many new readers, though lovers of his work would not be without any of them. To this Dictionary he contributed the notice of Lord Berners.
No account of Betjeman's life could fail to stress his devoted adherence to the Anglican Church, not only for the sake of its buildings, its liturgy, and its worshippers but for its faith. Expressions of doubt and the fear of old age and death are strong and memorable in his poetry, but Church of England thoughts are pervasive too, and one of its chief attractions, seldom given proper weight, has been the sense of an undemonstrative but deep Christian belief of a kind able to contain the harsh, ugly, absurd realities of present-day existence.
John Betjeman was a sociable man, one who loved company and valued it the more for being also a shy man. Although he was renowned for his youthful gregariousness and was endlessly affable with all manner of people, his was a life rich in intimacy. Latterly he was partial to small gatherings and old friends and a sufficiency of wine. His expression in repose was timid, perhaps not altogether at ease, and even at the best of times it was possible to surprise on his face a look of great dejection. But all this was blown away in an instant by laughter of a totality that warmed all who knew him. His presence, like his work in verse and prose, was full of the enjoyment he felt and gave.
He was chosen as poet laureate to universal acclaim in 1972. He received many distinctions besides, being awarded the Duff Cooper memorial prize, the Foyle poetry prize, and in 1960 the Queen's medal for poetry. In that year too he was appointed CBE, in 1968 he was elected a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1969 he was knighted. He was an honorary fellow of his old college, Magdalen (1975), and also of Keble College, Oxford> (1972). He had honorary degrees from Oxford, Reading, Birmingham, Exeter, City University, Liverpool, Hull, and Trinity College, Dublin. He was also honorary ARIBA.
In 1933 he married Penelope Valentine Hester, only daughter of Field-Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode, first Baron Chetwode [qv.], OM, commander-in-chief in India at the time. In latter years they were amicably separated and Betjeman was cared for by his friend Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of the Duke of Devonshire. Lady Betjeman, a writer of travel books (as Penelope Chetwode) and a devotee of Indian culture, died in 1986. There were a son and a daughter of the marriage. From the mid-1970s Betjeman had suffered increasingly from the onset of Parkinson's disease and he died at Treen, his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, 19 May 1984. He is buried in nearby St Enodoc churchyard.
The Times, 21 May 1984
Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: a Life in Pictures, 1984, and Young Betjeman, 1988
Contributor: Kingsley Amis