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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1906, was born John Betjeman.

Betjeman was a poet who became popular for his lines on nostalgia for the previous century, in a time of constant social change.

John Betjeman was born on 28th August 1906 at Hampstead, London, the son of Ernest and Mabel Betjeman, proprietors of a furniture factory. He was educated at a local school, one of his teachers being the poet T S Elliot, and then at Marlborough College, before proceeding to Magdalen College, Oxford.

At Oxford, Betjeman entered the new faculty of English, but found the emphasis on linguistics to be uninspirational, and consequently devoted most of his time to reading rather than analysing literature, and writing his own verse. He became notorious for carrying about his teddy bear, Archibald, an experience later recalled by Evelyn Waugh who included Sebastian Flyte's teddy, Aloysius, in Brideshead Revisited. Betjeman fell foul of his tutor, C S Lewis, who had him sent down when he failed a minor examination in Divinity, famously saying 'You'd have only taken a third'. Betjeman carried a lifelong grudge against Lewis for his callous action but achieved some satisfaction in 1974, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. His years at Oxford are recounted in his blank verse publication, Summoned by Bells.

After leaving Oxford, Betjeman declined his father’s offer to join the family business, and worked briefly as a secretary, schoolmaster and film critic, before taking a job as an assistant editor of the Architectural Review. Although this journal was a proponent of the modernist style, he regularly produced features on Victorian and Edwardian styles, in which he became an expert, and wrote fulsomely. In 1933, he published his first book of verse, Mount Zion, including verses on ecclesiastical architecture, and his first book on architecture, Ghastly Good Taste, a review of the Victorian style. He went on to produce four further volumes of poetry in the same vein. His poetry is known for nostalgia for the recent past, satirizing architectural ‘progress’ which often amounted to wanton destruction. His Tennysonian style and rhythm evoked a vanishing past, which made him widely popular at a time when his subject matter was rapidly vanishing. His most famous verse was the anarchic Slough, which includes the memorable lines:

‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now.
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!.........

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now:
The earth exhales.’

In 1933, Betjeman married the Hon. Penelope Chetwode. The couple had a son, Paul, in 1937, and a daughter, Paula, usually known as Candida, in 1942. During the 1930’s Betjeman produced The Shell Guides, a series of county guides, extolling the virtues of country churches, sponsored by the petrol company, Shell-Mex Ltd, who fondly hoped that motorists would be encouraged to travel into the countryside and therefore spend more on Shell petrol.

During the Second World War, Betjeman was rejected for military service, but became British press attaché in Dublin, where his job was to sway Irish public opinion in favour of Britain. He arranged for the battle scenes of Laurence Olivier's propaganda film, Henry V, to be taken in Ireland. The film starred Olivier as the heroic English king, fighting against the superior numbers of fiendish European enemies. It was rumoured that Betjeman was selected for assassination by the IRA, but spared as the local commander appreciated his poetry.

In 1945, Betjeman moved to Farnborough and in 1951 to Wantage, where his wife ran a tea-shop, and he continued to write the light verse that had made him famous, satirising modern society and the economic boom of the fifties and sixties, as for example:

‘Oh! Fuller's angel-cake, Robertson's marmalade,
Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all.’

In lines like these he ridiculed not only modern society but himself and the readers who would recognise their own predilections for consumerism within his pages. In 1973, he made a television documentary called Metro-land, which celebrated in prose and verse, the outer reaches of the Home Counties. In his later years, he campaigned vigorously to save buildings threatened with demolition. He was able to save St Pancras Station and the relatively unknown but aesthetic Sweetings fish restaurant, but despite all his efforts, the Euston Arch was lost. In 1972, he became Poet Laureate. He died on 19th May 1984 at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, and was buried in the local churchyard. [St Enodoc Church, Trebetherick, Wadebridge, PL27 6SA]

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