Monday, 25 May 2015

John Betjeman (1906-1984) - the people's Poet.

                                                                           Sir John Betjeman

For those unfamiliar with the work of the British poet and writer John Betjeman (1906-1984) you may find the following short poems revelatory and I hope enjoyable. Revelatory because in their own way, they reveal the diversity of interests and the sheer readability of his poetry, in which he incorporates events and circumstances of everyday life familiar to all people in contemporary Britain, expressed clearly in language to which all can relate. Integrity pervades his writing, with gentle, and sometimes not so gentle irony, a potent weapon and tool of his trade. 
Ack. The following poems are taken from 'The Collected Poems of John Betjeman' with permission from Messrs.Hodder and Stoughton.

This first poem reminds me of my childhood, longer ago than I care to admit, when I lived in the Surrey countryside with my mother and our dog Bobby, my father was in the army serving abroad. It was war-time and the black-out was strictly enforced, and I was rather afraid of the dark ...........

False Security
I remember the dread with which I at a quarter past four
Let go with a bang behind me our house front door,
And, clutching a present for my dear little hostess tight,
Sailed out for the children’s party into the night
Or rather the gathering night.   For still some boys
In the near municipal acres were making a noise
Shuffling in fallen leaves and shouting and whistling
And running past hedges of hawthorn, spikey and bristling.

And black in the oncoming darkness stood out the trees
And pink shone the ponds in the sunset ready to freeze
And all was still and ominous waiting for dark
And the keeper was ringing his closing bell in the park
And the arc lights started to fizzle and burst into mauve
As I climbed West Hill to the great big house in The Grove,
Where the children’s party was and the dear little hostess.

But halfway up stood the empty house where the ghost is,
I crossed to the other side and under the arc
Made a rush for the next kind lamp-post out of the dark.
And so to the next and the next till I reached the top
Where The Grove branched off to the left.  Then ready to drop
I ran to the ironwork gateway of number seven,
Secure at last on the lamplit fringe of Heaven.

Oh who can say how subtle and safe one feels
Shod in one’s children’s sandals from Daniel Neal’s,
Clad in one’s party clothes made of stuff from Heal’s?
And who can still one’s thrill at the candle shine
On cakes and ices and jelly and blackcurrant wine,
And the warm little feel of my hostess’s hand in mine?

Can I forget my delight at the conjuring show?
And wasn’t I proud that I was the last to go?
Too over-excited and pleased with myself to know
That the words I heard my hostess’s mother employ
To a guest departing, would ever diminish my joy,
I wonder where Julia found that strange, rather
                            common little boy?


It is usually unwise to label anyone as 'religious', but John Betjeman had a great interest in all things appertaining to religion, with a personal faith and preference for high-church Anglicanism, and a particular interest in and love for old church buildings, religious liturgy, and religious people.  In the poem 'Felixstowe, or the last of her Order' these interests are reflected in a nostalgic but pragmatic way.  

Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order
With one consuming roar along the shingle
    The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
    A mounting arch of water weedy-brown.
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow,
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.

In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
    Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
    Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer. 

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
    Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
    “The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx”.
We built our orphanage.  We ran our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavilion
    Warm in the whisper of a summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermilion,
    With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of winter dies.

Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
    And louder clang the waves along the coast,
The band packs up.  The evening breeze is stronger
    And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cake-shop’s tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St. John’s.

“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising”
    Here where the white light burns with steady glow,
Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathizing.
    Safe with the love that I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.


 John Betjeman had no time for 20th century town and country developers and planners. He despised 'modern' architecture and so-called 'new towns', seeing in them the demise of the Britain he loved and in which he had grown up. His strong feelings were expressed frequently in his poetry, and shows his anger towards those people he considered mainly responsible for the desecration of the countryside and the destruction of historic buildings and townships. The following poems 'Executive' and 'Harvest Hymn', sum this up rather well.

I am a young executive.  No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
The maitres d’hotel all know me well and let me sign the bill.

You ask me what it is I do.  Well actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man and partly P.R.O.
Essentially I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.

For vital off-the-record work – that’s talking transport wise-
I’ve a scarlet Aston Martin- and does she go?  She flies!
Pedestrians and dogs and cats – we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speed-boat which has never touched the water.

She’s built of fibre-glass, of course.  I call her ‘Mandy Jane’
After a bird I used to know- No soda please, just plain-
And how did I acquire her?  Well to tell you about that
And to put you in the picture I must wear my other hat.

I do some mild developing.  The sort of place I need
Is a quiet country market town that’s rather run to seed.
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little 'savoir faire' -
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.

And if some preservationist attempts to interfere
A ‘dangerous structure’ notice from the Borough Engineer
Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way-
The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay.

 Harvest Hymn
We spray the fields and scatter 
The poison on the ground
So that no wicked wild flowers
Upon our farm be found.
We like whatever helps us
To line our purse with pence;
The twenty-four-hour broiler-house
And neat electric fence.

All concrete sheds around us
And Jaguars in the yard,
The telly-lounge and deep-freeze
Are ours from working hard.

We fire the fields for harvest,
The hedges swell the flame,
The oaktrees and the cottages
From which our fathers came.
We give no compensation,
The earth is ours today,
And if we lose on arable,
Then bungalows will pay.

All concrete sheds ........etc.                            


Betjeman was no lover of government bureaucracy, but he liked people, particularly 'ordinary' people, such as the oft-quoted 'man on the Clapham omnibus'. The following poems  'Mortality' and 'The Hon. Sec.' I think reflect this.

The first class brains of a senior civil servant
Shiver and shatter and fall
As the steering column of his comfortable Humber
Batters in the bony wall.
All those delicate little re-adjustments
"On the one hand if we proceed
With the ad hoc policy hitherto adapted
To individual need ......
On the other hand, too rigid an arrangement
Might, of itself, perforce ....
I would like to submit for the Minister's concurrence
The following alternative course,
Subject to revision and reconsideration
In the light our experience gains ...."
And this had to happen at the corner where the by-pass
Comes into Egham out of Staines.
That very near miss for an All Souls' Fellowship
The recent compensation of a 'K' -
The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Are sweetbread on the road today.

The Hon. Sec.
The flag that hung half-mast today
Seemed animate with being
As if it knew for whom it flew
And will no more be seeing.

He loved each corner of the links -
The stream at the eleventh,
The grey-green bents, the pale sea-pinks,
The prospect from the seventh;

To the ninth tee the uphill climb,
A grass and sandy stairway,
And at the top the scent of thyme
And long extent of fairway.

He knew how on a summer day
The sea's deep blue grew deeper,
How evening shadows over Bray
Made that round hill look steeper.

He knew the ocean mists that rose
and seemed for ever staying,
When moaned the foghorn from Trevose
And nobody was playing;

The flip of cards on winter eves,
The whisky and the scoring,
As trees outside were stripped of leaves
And heavy seas were roaring.

He died when early April light
Showed red his garden sally,
And under pale green spears glowed white
His lilies of the valley;

That garden where he used to stand
And where the robin waited
To fly and perch upon his hand
And feed till it was sated.

The Times would never have the space
For Ned's discreet achievements;
The public prints are not the place
For intimate bereavements.

A gentle guest, a willing host,
Affection deeply planted -
It's strange that those we miss the most
Are those we take for granted.

 John Betjeman was a man who loved life, yet his poetry revealed an ever present recognition of the inevitability of death. He wrote many poems reflecting the transience of life and the reality of pain and suffering, particularly in old age.
An example of this is the poem  'Five o' Clock Shadow'.

Five o'Clock Shadow  

This is the time of day when we in the Men's Ward 
Think, "One more surge of the pain and I give up the fight,"
When he who struggles for breath can struggle less strongly:
This is the time of day which is worse than night.

A haze of thunder hangs on the hospital rose-beds,
A doctors' foursome out on the links is played,
Safe in her sitting-room Sister is putting her feet up:
This is the time of day when we feel betrayed.

Below the windows, loads of loving relations
Rev in the car park, changing gear at the bend,
Making for home and a nice big tea and the telly:
" Well we've done what we can.  It can't be long till the end."  

This is the time of day when the weight of bedclothes
Is harder to bear than a sharp incision of steel.
The endless anonymous croak of a cheap transistor
Intensifies the lonely terror I feel.           

                          The Holy Family  (fresco by Veronese 1528-1588)

  'If we are true servants of Mary, and obtain her protection, we most certainly shall be inscribed in the Book of Life'

ack, 'Thoughts from St Alphonsus Liguori' (1696-1787)