“Poetry Afternoon”

This afternoon I have chosen a sweet darling of a man, he really was.  For those of you who maybe unfamiliar with him, I hope you come to like him as much as I do, so here goes.

His name was Sir John Betjeman   –   Born August 28, 1906 at Parliament Hill Mansions, Lissenden Gardens, Gospel Oak, London.    –    Died May 19, 1984 aged 77 years at Trebetherick, Cornwall, England.

John Betjeman was an English poet, writer and broadcaster.  He would describe himself in “Who’s Who” as a poet and hack.  In 1972 John Betjeman became Poet Laureate, a  post he held until he died.

John Betjeman was actually born Betjemann, he changed his name from the German looking Betjemann to the Betjeman  during the First World War.  His early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by poet T.S Eliot.  After that he boarded at Dragon School prep school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, the public school in Wiltshire.

He entered the University of Oxford, he was an non scholarship student at Magdalen College, his tutor was a young C. S. Lewis who regarded him as an “idle pig”.  Betjeman in turn considered C. S. Lewis as unfriendly, demanding and uninspired as a teacher.  Betjeman had a poem published in Isis the university magazine and he served as editor of the “cherwell” student newspaper during 1927.  His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow student Edward James.  He famously brought his teddy bear “Archibald Ormsby-Gore” up to Magdalen with him.  Betjeman left Oxford with a degree.

John Betjeman’s sexuality would best be described as bisexual, but his longest relationships were with women.  Which is not unusual with many bisexual men.  On july 29, 1933 he married the Hon Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode.  They lived in Berkshire and had a Son, Paul, in 1937 and a Daughter Candida in 1942.

In 1939 John Betjeman was rejected for service in World War II but he did find work with the films division of the Ministry of Information.  It was in 1941 that he became British Press Attache in neutral Dublin, Ireland working with Sir John Maffey.  It is possible he may have been involved with the gathering of intelligence.He was reported to have been selected for assassination by the IRA.  Later the order was rescinded after a meeting with an unnamed Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.

In 1948 Betjeman’s wife Penelope became a Roman Catholic and the couple drifted apart in 1951, he then met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship with.

John Betjeman became a familiar figure on British tv and was well loved.  There is a statue to him on St Pancras Railway Station, it includes a series of slate roundels depicting selections of John Betjeman’s writings.

He had many Awards and Honours;

1960 Queen’s Medal for Poetry

1960 Commander of the Order of The British Empire (CBE)

1968 Companion of Literature, the Royal Society of Literature

1969 Knight Bachelor

1972 Poet Laureate

1973 Honorary Member, the American Academy of Arts and Letters

2011 Honoured by the University of Oxford his alma mater as one of its 100 most distinguished members from ten centuries


I have chosen two poems from my own copy of his  book “John Betjeman Collected Poems”



“The vagrant visitor erstwhile,”

My colour-plate book says to me,

“could wend by hedgerow-side and stile,

from Benfleet down to Leigh-on-Sea.”


And as I turn the colour-plates

Edwardian Essex opens wide,

Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,

sweet uneventful countryside.


Like streams the little by-roads run

through oats and barley round a hill

to where blue willows catch the sun

by some white weather-boarded mill


“A summer idyll Matching Tye”

“at Havering-atte-Bower, the Stocks”

and cobbled pathways leads the eye

to cottage doors and hollyhocks


Far Essex, fifty miles away

the level wastes of sucking mud

where distant barges high with hay

come sailing in upon the flood


Nrae Essex of the River Lea

and anglers out with hook and worm

and Epping Forest glades where we

had beanfeasts with my Father’s firm


At huge and convoluted pubs

they used to set us down from brakes

in that half-land of football clubs

which London near the Forest makes


The deepest Essex few explore

where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers

and out of elm and sycamore

rise flinty fifteenth-century towers




I see the branch line go

by white farms roofed in red and brown

the old Great Eastern winding slow

to some forgotten country town


Now yarrow chokes the railway track

brambles obliterate the stile,

no motor coach can take me back

to that Edwardian “erstwhile”.


I chose the above poem, because I was born in Essex, still live in Essex but by the Sea now.  When I first Married, I lived in South Benfleet.



When the great bell

Booms over the Portland stone urn, and

From ther carved cedar wood

Rises the odour of incense,


In St Botolph Bishopsgate Churchyard

And wait for the spirit of my grandfather

Toddling along from the Barbican.


I hope you enjoyed just these two examples of John Betjeman’s work.






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