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You are in: Oxford > People > Profiles > Local Lives - Sir John Betjeman

John Betjeman

Local Lives - Sir John Betjeman

How life and times in Oxford inspired the much loved Poet Laureate.

Sir John Betjeman - 1906 – 1984

Journalists sometimes call him ‘the nation’s teddy bear’ - perhaps an allusion to the teddy bear he often carried around, even as an adult, or more fittingly, a reference to his jolly manner and slightly rotund figure, but John Betjeman, poet, broadcaster, champion of Victorian churches, suburbia (of the right kind), trains and Cornwall, was not as ebullient and self confident as the persona he projected.

He was an only child, born in north London in 1906; his father’s Betjemann forebears had come to England in the eighteenth century from Holland or Germany, but John suffered unpleasant taunts for having a Germanic name during the First World War, and his mother dropped the final ‘n’ from the surname. His father retained the old spelling. He was a furniture manufacturer and producer of the ‘Betjemann Patent Tantalus’ (square cut-glass brandy or whisky decanters in a solid lockable wooden stand) and the family was well-off but ‘in trade’, which carried a certain social stigma at the time, and thus they were looked down on by some of their neighbours in Highgate. As a result, John was to display a fine awareness of the workings of snobbery throughout his life.

As a little boy, he was often very lonely; his teddy Archibald was his constant companion (and later the inspiration for Sebastian Flyte’s bear, Aloysius, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited), and he said that he liked electric trains and maps of the Underground much more than people. It was only when the Betjemanns moved to a larger house in Highgate that he had other children to play with: he spent much time with the three children next door, and grew very fond of their mother, who encouraged his interest in poetry. When their father was posted abroad in 1916, and they left Highgate, John felt utterly bereft – he later described it as “the saddest moment of my life”.

In May the following year, John became a boarder at the Dragon School in North Oxford. As the name itself indicates, it was a rather unusual school in many ways and allowed the boys a great deal of freedom, and on his bicycle John explored the Victorian roads around the Dragon and in Jericho, and went on expeditions to look at churches in the villages outside Oxford. His interest in architecture, whetted by his childhood in London, was honed by his schooldays in Oxford, and ever after he remained a passionate enthusiast of Victorian neo-Gothic architecture. At the Dragon, he was taught how to recite poetry and he also acted in many plays, which stood him in good stead for his later work on radio and television.

After the Dragon came Marlborough College, where Betjeman became a pupil at the age of fourteen. He was bad at games in a school where sporting prowess was highly prized, but he wrote poetry, he sketched, he wore his hair suspiciously long, and was described by the poet Louis MacNeice, who was there are the same time, as “a triumphant misfit”.

In 1925 he came up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he fell foul of C.S. Lewis, his English tutor, turning up late to a tutorial with the tweedy, pipe smoking, bluff Irishman wearing, to Lewis’ disgust, “eccentric bedroom slippers”. He usually wore outrageous clothes - lavender trousers with an orange shirt - he spent too much money dining out, making illicit trips to London by train, feeding the deer in Magdalen on sugar lumps soaked in port, and too much time cultivating the image of himself as a perfect aesthete. He acted, he wrote poetry and architectural notes for student publications, and became editor of the student magazine Cherwell. And he neglected his studies, so that in the end he left Oxford without a degree. 

His father had hoped that John would follow him into the family business, but his son had no inclination or intention to do so, and instead did a brief stint as a prep school master before being appointed assistant editor of the Architectural Review and film critic of the Evening Standard. 

John Betjeman

He married in 1933; the wedding was in a register office, and his parents attended, but not those of his bride, Penelope Chetwode, because for her it was really an elopement, and indeed after a few days honeymooning in Essex, she went back to live with her  parents, only telling them two months later that she was married.  The couple then moved to Uffington, in the Vale of the White Horse, and later to the village of Farnborough near Wantage, where they lived in an eighteenth century rectory. She kept horses and cows, he spent much of the week in London. They had two children, Paul, and Candida (Lycett Green), a writer, whose memoir of a year of her childhood in Farnborough, The Dangerous Edge of Things, paints an affectionate picture of village life just after the Second World War.

Over the years Betjeman wrote several volumes of poetry; his poems were easy to read and had a wide appeal, unlike those of many of his contemporaries. He showed an engaging lightness of touch in much of his verse, which although frequently humorous, was also marked by a certain sadness or melancholy. Summoned by Bells, a bittersweet autobiography of his childhood and university days in blank verse, depicts an Oxford that can still be recognised today.  He became Poet Laureate in 1972, but long before that he had become famous on radio and television as a champion of churches, railway stations, villages, and Victorian architecture and suburbs: if demolition threatened any of these, he was sure to spearhead a protest in their defence. He was also noted for his enthusiasm for Cornwall, where he had spent many a boyhood holiday, and where he made his home towards the end of his life. He died there in May 1984, and was buried in the nearby churchyard of St. Enodoc.

last updated: 23/03/2009 at 11:32
created: 18/03/2009

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