Thursday, 29 October 2009

John Betjemen (1906-1984)

October 6th was National Poetry Day: newspapers published the list of the nation’s favourites, amongst which was John Betjemen. Betjemen counts as a national treasure. I think this is due to his combined love for the country and countryside and the fact that his poems rhyme…or perhaps it might, more correctly, be his use of rhythm.

But of course he didn’t love everything about England (his dislike of creeping suburbanisation and the urbanization of the countryside is made famous in his poem, Slough). And not all of his poems rhymed. Plus, he wrote many other things besides. However, he was passionate about so much – the countryside, architecture, women! – and these come through in his poems. As does his humour.

Betjemen’s poetry is, in short, accessible. Perhaps it is not so much humourous, as light: sometimes satirical, other times sentimental, his work is never stuffy, oblique or elevated. Anyone can read it without needing to be a literature student – a very important feature - and understand it. There is something so honest and simple in the emotions embodied in his poems that it appeals to all those who love similar things.

Trebetherick by John Betjeman

We used to picnic where the thrift
Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
In trembling sponges on the ledge
Below us, till the wind would lift
Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.
Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

From where the coastguard houses stood
One used to see below the hill,
The lichened branches of a wood
In summer silver cool and still;
And there the Shade of Evil could
Stretch out at us from Shilla Mill.
Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light,
Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat.

But when a storm was at its height,
And feathery slate was black in rain,
And tamarisks were hung with light
And golden sand was brown again,
Spring tide and blizzard would unite
And sea come flooding up the lane.
Waves full of treasure then were roaring up the beach,
Ropes round our mackintoshes, waders warm and dry,
We waited for the wreckage to come swirling into reach,
Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and I.

Then roller into roller curled
And thundered down the rocky bay,
And we were in a water world
Of rain and blizzard, sea and spray,
And one against the other hurled
We struggled round to Greenaway.
Blessйd be St Enodoc, blessйd be the wave,
Blessйd be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee,
Ask for our children all happy days you gave
To Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and me.

When he was up at Oxford as a young man Betjemen was already writing poetry. His interest in architecture was strong, and churches and their bells were a particular passion even then. Over a third of his poems are about churches, not to mention prose pieces such as Blisland (yes, it’s a real place name) and St Endellion.

And these prose pieces – essays I suppose – are some of my favourite Betjemen work. He gives us such an appreciation – his of course but things that touch all those who know the place – of the landscapes. In Bournemouth and An Approach to Oxford for example anyone knowing the town and city immediately recognizes what is special about the place.

His fond portrayal of a visit to Kelmscott, the house built by William Morris, gives the reader a true insight into Betjemen’s appreciation and love of art and architecture. Betjemen was also a great conservationist. Along with a love of architecture was a fondness of railways.

His knowledge of, and admiration for, St Pancras, one of London’s great Victorian Gothic train stations, and for it’s architect, was well known. In the 1960’s it was his impassioned pleas and championing of the buildings of St Pancras railway station that finally led to the station being refurbished and not razed to the ground.

A larger than life statue of Betjemen staring up into the great glass roof stands in the station in honour of his efforts. A lasting monument to a poet who put his money where his mouth was.


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