Sir John Betjeman was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”. He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and a much-loved figure on British television. Originally the name was Betjemann, but the family knocked off the last ‘n’ during the First World War to make it sound less Teutonic. It wasn’t until the Fifties that his work really started getting noticed. When his Collected Poems came out in 1958 they made publishing history – they have since sold over two and a quarter million copies
It’s interesting that, at a time when people were getting stuck into free-form jazz and blank verse, Betjeman stuck to his traditional guns. And while outwardly his satiric, wry verse might have seemed light, there was a great depth and elegance to his poetry. He died in 1984 and was buried in St Enedoc Church, Trebetherick, North Cornwall. It is a magical place. One of the nicest ways to approach it is by getting the ferry from Padstow to Rock, then walking up along the bay and over the hills – beautiful. There are some recordings of him reading his poems here. Below are a couple of lines and then two wonderful poems: How to get on in society, and Meditation on the A30.
Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.
I don’t think I am any good. If I thought I was any good, I wouldn’t be.
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough. / It isn’t fit for humans now.
How To Get On In Society
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.
Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.
It’s ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule’s comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me
Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you-
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?
Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.
Meditation on the A30 by John Betjeman
A man on his own in a car
Is revenging himself on his wife;
He open the throttle and bubbles with dottle
and puffs at his pitiful life
She’s losing her looks very fast,
she loses her temper all day;
that lorry won’t let me get past,
this Mini is blocking my way.
“Why can’t you step on it and shift her!
I can’t go on crawling like this!
At breakfast she said that she wished I was dead-
Thank heavens we don’t have to kiss.
“I’d like a nice blonde on my knee
And one who won’t argue or nag.
Who dares to come hooting at me?
I only give way to a Jag.
“You’re barmy or plastered, I’ll pass you, you bastard-
I will overtake you. I will!”
As he clenches his pipe, his moment is ripe
And the corner’s accepting its kill.