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John Betjeman 1906-1984

Biography

John Betjeman described himself as a "poet and a hack", a sentiment typical of the wry self-deprecating wit that has earned him an indelible place in the affections of the British public. By his death in 1984, he was probably the 20th century's most popular Poet Laureate.

Born in 1906, Betjeman grew up in the suburbs of north London. At school his German name marked him out for the attention of bullies. He arrived at Oxford University with a teddy bear which gave his contemporary Evelyn Waugh the idea for Aloysius, Sebastian's teddy, in Brideshead Revisited. Betjamin was more concerned with his social life and writing for university magazines than his academic studies and failed to complete his degree.

Betjeman wrote extensively about his early experiences in the blank-verse poem Summoned By Bells, which describes a largely idyllic childhood threatened by events in the larger world. Featuring potting sheds, Windsmoor scarves, pony clubs and commuter trains, his poetry characteristically eulogises suburbia. His strongly rhythmical poems became known for their ability to create a sense of nostalgia for a lost pre-war England. But his less then complementary poem Slough angered the residents of the Berkshire town when it first appeared in 1937. Over 60 years later Ricky Gervais' David Brent would defend Slough's honour when he recited the poem in an episode of the hit BBC comedy The Office.

Betjeman spent the Second World War working for the Ministry of Information and as a cultural attaché in Ireland, where the IRA considered his assassination but decided against it as "a man who could give so much pleasure with his pen couldn't be much of a secret agent". Work for the Architectural Review fuelled a lifelong passion for unloved Victorian buildings, which Betjeman campaigned tirelessly to save, in later life becoming known as much for his architectural programmes; recognisable by his large waist and avuncular style. A statue of Betjeman stands at London's St Pancras station, which he fought to save.

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