On this day in history : 28th August 1906 – The birth of Sir John Betjeman – much loved broadcaster on British television and one of the most popular British Poets Laureate of all time….
Born John Betjemann, with a father of Dutch descent, the family name changed to Betjeman at the time of World War One, to make it appear a little less German….
After finishing his education Betjeman declined employment in the family’s furniture business…. In his early schooling he was taught by poet T.S. Eliot – and then later, whilst at Oxford University, his tutor was a young C.S. Lewis…. However, whereas Eliot was encouraging and inspiring Lewis was not so supportive, regarding Betjeman as an ‘idle prig’…. The feeling was mutual – in return Betjeman found Lewis demanding and uninspiring as a tutor…. He was to leave Oxford without a degree and went on to work in a variety of fields – as a private secretary, a period as a school teacher and then as a film critic for the Evening Standard…. Betjeman had first had his poetry published whilst at Oxford, in the university magazine The Isis…. His first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published in 1931….
It was in 1932 that his broadcasting career began, a radio programme about the proposed destruction of Waterloo Bridge…. The previous year he had become assistant editor of The Architectural Review – as a result of his love for buildings and their history…. Betjeman was to become a founding member of the Victorian Society, aimed at protecting our Victorian and Edwardian heritage and architecture…. His first book on the subject, Ghastly Good Taste, was published in 1933…. It was also in this year that he married travel writer the Hon. Penelope Chetwode, the only daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode…. They were to have two children, a son Paul and daughter Candida – the marriage was to break down in the late 1940s….
Betjeman was rejected for active military service in 1939 – instead he did work for the films division of the Ministry of Information…. He still did regular radio work, something that was to continue throughout his life – including interviews, documentaries, panel shows, even game shows – and of course poetry readings…. By 1937 the BBC was making regular screen broadcasts and Betjeman’s first television appearance was on a programme named How to Make a Guidebook…. From the 1950s he was to become a familiar face on television….
In 1960 he was to be awarded a CBE and then in 1962 he was knighted…. He succeeded Cecil Day Lewis as Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1972…. Later in his life he was to suffer from Parkinson’s disease – and was prominently featured in campaigns for Parkinson UK…. He died in Cornwall on the 19th of May 1984….
The following poem, ‘Slough’, is from John Betjeman’s 1937 collection Continental Dew…. The poem was written to show his dismay at the industrialisation of Britain…. Slough being a prime example – as it was used as a dumping ground for surplus war materials after World War One – and had also seen around 850 new factories built….
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, bombs, and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath.
Mess up the mess they call a town -
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week for half-a-crown
For twenty years,
And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears,
And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.
But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.
It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead,
In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.
Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales
Of course, no offence intended if you live in Slough – this poem could have been written about so many places… What is poignant for me is that this was written in the 1930s – and nothing much has changed…. Except that we’re now finally beginning to accept we have to do something about it….