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Heritage: Sir John Betjeman - Poet Laureate with a love of railways and architecture

PUBLISHED: 08:00 09 April 2013

Sir John Betjeman. Picture: PA Archive

Sir John Betjeman. Picture: PA Archive

PA Archive/Press Association Images

In the latest of our series exploring the lives of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the life of poet, writer and broadcaster Sir John Betjeman.

Sir John Betjeman was made a Knight of the Realm in 1969 and appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. He was an ardent campaigner for the preservation of historic buildings and a lover of England’s railways and Tube network.

An only child, his teddy bear, Archibald – a constant companion – impressed Evelyn Waugh so much that Waugh replicated the relationship for one of his most famous characters, Sebastian Flyte, in Brideshead Revisited.

Betjeman once gave his occupation in Who’s Who as “poet and hack” and his Collected Poems have sold more than 2.5 million copies to date.

In 2007 his statue was unveiled at St Pancras International to commemorate his role in saving the station from closure some 40 years earlier.

Poet, writer, broadcaster and all round “national treasure,” Betjeman (1906–1984) was born on August 28 at 52 Parliament Hill Mansions, Gospel Oak. He was the only child of Ernest Edward Betjemann, a furniture manufacturer, and his wife Mabel.

The poet adopted his spelling of the family name at the age of 21, dropping the second “n” due to its Germanic connotations. Betjeman was particularly pleased that he had been born within yards of a railway station, Gospel Oak, on his favourite railway, the North London Line.

In 1908 the family moved to 31 West Hill (now Highgate West Hill) and remained at the address until 1917. Much of Betjeman’s childhood was spent at West Hill, “safe, in a world of trains and buttered toast”.

A lonely child, the poet developed a strong relationship with his teddy bear, Archie, who remained a constant companion throughout his life. As a young man Betjeman would ride the Tube with his teddy bear on his lap and when people stared, he would exclaim, “Everyone’s staring at you Archie. Behave!”.

Betjeman attended Byron House Montessori School, Highgate. He later wrote about falling in love with Peggy Purey-Cust: “Your ice-blue eyes, your lashes long and light / Your sweetly freckled face and turned-up nose / So haunted me that all my loves since then / Have had a look of Peggy Purey-Cust”.

After Byron House he was a pupil at Highgate Junior School. During the admissions process he apparently failed to correctly answer how many half crowns there were in a pound (eight). At Highgate he was taught by TS Eliot, known to the boys as “the American master”.

The nine-year-old boy presented Eliot with The Best Poems of Betjeman, a hand-bound volume of his early “terrible” poetry. At the time Eliot seemed unimpressed with the work but 21 years later reminded his former pupil, having apparently never forgotten it.

In 1917 Betjeman boarded at the Dragon School, Oxford and then unhappily at Marlborough College. He was not a natural athlete but derived great enjoyment from school theatricals and various forms of writing. He later recalled with affection the influence of two Marlborough school masters who “made us aware that being good at games was not all”.

As a schoolboy, Betjeman and a friend would spend their holidays exploring the London Underground.

He noted: “Our parents used to give us money and we’d start in the morning and travel up and down all day... it used to be my boast that I’d got out at every station on the Underground.”

In 1925, Betjeman went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where, due to the many university distractions, he failed to distinguish himself academically. He left without completing his degree but in 1975 accepted an honorary D.Litt from his former college.

At Magdalen he was tutored, and clashed with, C S Lewis. Betjeman apparently told Lewis that he favoured the poetry of Lord Alfred Douglas over that of Shakespeare. Up at Oxford he met, among others, WH Auden.

Betjeman’s father, who was buried at Highgate Cemetery, wanted him to enter the family furniture business near the Angel in Islington. After Oxford Betjeman worked as a preparatory school teacher and contributed freelance pieces to the Architectural Review.

Later, in 1930, he was appointed the magazine’s assistant editor where, “he spent more time working on his verse than on his Classical Orders and Gothic arches,” and not always productively. One couplet, “I sometimes think that I should like / To be the saddle of a bike” was, apparently, the laborious result of a collaboration between him, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice (also an alumni of Marlborough College).

In 1933 Betjeman became the film critic for the Evening Standard. During this time his first book of poetry, Mount Zion (1931), was privately published and was followed in 1933 by Ghastly Good Taste, subtitled “A depressing story of the rise and fall of English Architecture”. That year Betjeman married the Hon Penelope Chetwode and the couple had two children.

In 1941 Betjeman was posted to the Dublin High Commission as a press attaché, having been turned down, on medical grounds, as a volunteer for the RAF.

It was later revealed that Betjeman had been removed from a list of targets for assassination by the IRA because a senior provisional was fond of his verse.

An English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled, by John R Murray – the son of Betjeman’s friend and publisher, John Murray – in 2006 at 31 Highgate West Hill, to mark the centenary of his birth.

He affectionately referenced the address in his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960): “Deeply I loved thee, 31 West Hill”.

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