John Betjeman

English poet, writer and broadcaster Sir John Betjeman, CBE. sadly passed away on 19 May 1984, aged 77. Born 28 August 1906, He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. He Started his career as a journalist, and ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureates and a much-loved figure on British television. Betjeman’s early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the 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. 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 studied at the newly created School of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College , Oxford University ,where he dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life, his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits.He also had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine and was editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927. His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow-student Edward James. Betjeman left Oxford without a degree but he had made the acquaintance of people who would influence his work. After university, Betjeman worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard. He was employed by the Architectural Review between 1930 and 1935, as a full time assistant editor, following their publishing of some of his freelance work. At this time, while his prose style matured, he joined the MARS Group, an organisation of young modernist architects and architectural critics in Britain.The Shell Guides, were developed by Betjeman and Jack Beddington, a friend who was publicity manager with Shell-Mex Ltd. The series aimed to guide Britain’s growing number of motorists around the counties of Britain and their historical sites. They were published by the Architectural Press and financed by Shell. By the start of World War II 13 had been published, of which Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936) had been written by Betjeman. A third, Shropshire, was written with and designed by his good friend John Piper in 1951.

Upon the outbreak of World War II In 1939, Betjeman was rejected for active service but found work with the films division of the Ministry of Information. During his time he wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in “Emergency” World War II Ireland including “The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922″ (actually written during the war) which contained the refrain “Dungarvan in the rain”. After the war Betjaman published more work and By 1948 he had published more than a dozen books. Five of these were verse collections and The popularity of the book prompted Ken Russell to make a film about him, John Betjeman: A Poet in London which was first shown in England on BBC’s Monitor programme. He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. He was also a founder member of The Victorian Society (1958). In 1973 he made a widely acclaimed television documentary for the BBC called Metro-land, directed by Edward Mirzoeff. Betjeman was also fond of the ghost stories of M.R. James and supplied an introduction to Peter Haining’s book M.R. James – Book of the Supernatural. Betjeman also wrote a great many poems which 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. Betjeman s religious beliefs come through in some of his poems .Betjeman became Poet Laureate in 1972, the first Knight Bachelor ever to be appointed (the only other, Sir William Davenant, had been knighted after his appointment). This role, combined with his popularity as a television performer, ensured that his poetry eventually reached an enormous audience.

Betjeman also had a fondness for Victorian architecture and was a founding member of Victorian Society and also wrote on this subject in First and Last Loves (1952) and more extensively in London’s Historic Railway Stations in 1972, defending the beauty of the twelve London railway stations. He led the campaign to save Holy Trinity, Sloane Street in London when it was threatened with demolition in the early 1970s. He fought a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Arch, London. He is considered instrumental in helping to save the famous façade of St Pancras railway station, London and was commemorated when it re-opened as an international and domestic terminus in November 2007. He called the plan to demolish St Pancras a “criminal folly”. ” On the re-opening St Pancras in 2007, a statue of Betjeman was commissioned from curators Futurecity. A proposal by artist Martin Jennings was selected from a shortlist. The finished work was erected in the station at platform level, including a series of slate roundels depicting selections of Betjeman’s writings. Betjeman responded to architecture as the visible manifestation of society’s spiritual life as well as its political and economic structure. He attacked speculators and bureaucrats for what he saw as their rapacity and lack of imagination. He is buried in the churchyard at St Enodoc’s Church.

During his life he recieved many honours including the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature, a Knight Bachelor he was also made an Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts in 1973 and was made poet Laureate in 1972. To commemorate Betjeman A memorial window, designed by John Piper, is set in All Saints’ Church, Farnborough, Berkshire, where Betjeman lived in the adjoining Rectory and there is also The Betjeman Millennium Park at Wantage in Oxfordshire as well as a statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station by sculptor Martin Jennings which was unveiled in 2007. In addition The John Betjeman Young People’s Poetry Competition was inaugurated in 2006 to celebrate Betjeman’s centenary. The competition is open to 11–14 year olds living anywhere in the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland. The spirit behind the competition is to encourage young people to understand and appreciate the importance of place.

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