John Betjeman

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The statue of Betjeman at St Pancras Station

John Betjeman [1][2](28 August 1906 - 19 May 1984) was a English poet. He was Poet Laureate known for his light humorous verse. One of his most famous poems was about Slough, a town in Berkshire. [3][4]

It begins with the rhyme:

'Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now...'

Betjeman was born in Highgate, London. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1933 he married Penelope Chetwode; they separated in the late 1940s. The couple's son, Paul was born in 1937. Their daughter was Candida Lycett Green (1942-2014). Betjeman's partner from 1951 until his death was Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.[5]

Betjeman died of Parkinson's disease in Trebetherick, Cornwall. He was replaced as Poet Laureate by Ted Hughes. Betjeman was also known as an architectural and cultural critic. He is buried at St Enodoc in Cornwall, near Trebetherick.[6]

Early life and education[change | change source]

Betjeman was born John Betjemann. He was the son of a prosperous silverware maker of Dutch descent. 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.

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

Betjeman was baptised 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. From West Hill they lived in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate:

Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,

I heard the old North London puff and shunt,

Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.

Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by poet 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 left Marlborough in July 1925.


Awards and honours[change | change source]

  • 1960 Queen's Medal for Poetry
  • 1960 Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
  • 1968 Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature[citation needed]
  • 1969 Knight Bachelor[citation needed]
  • 1972 Poet Laureate[citation needed]
  • 1973 Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts and Letters[citation needed]
  • 2011 Honoured by the University of Oxford, his alma mater, as one of its 100 most distinguished members from ten centuries.

References[change | change source]

  1. Betjeman, John (2007). Tennis Whites and Teacakes. John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-6903-6.
  2. "Pentonville Road | British History Online". www.british-history.ac.uk. Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  3. Brooke, Jocelyn (1962). Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman. British Council and the National Book League.
  4. Mowl, Timothy (2011). Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman Versus Pevsner. Faber & Faber, Limited. ISBN 978-0-571-27535-9.
  5. Comerford, Patrick. "Anglican spirituality and poetry: (2): John Betjeman (1906-1984)". Retrieved 2020-04-09.
  6. Mitford, Diana; Mosley, Diana (2008-12-02). A Life of Contrasts: The Autobiography. Gibson Square. ISBN 978-1-906142-14-8.