John Betjeman - Richard Farran, Poet Laureate - Architect,
One in the Same, he Would Have Been 100-Years-Old in August 2006
Copyright © 2006 Bruce Tober - All Rights Reserved
Books at Star Dot Star commemorates the centenary anniversay of his
Sir John Betjeman
|Sir John Betjeman would have been 100-year-old on 28th August 2006. Born in London
to Ernest Betjemann, a cabinet maker, and his wife, he was named British Poet Laureate in 1972 upon the death of
his predecessor, Cecil Day Lewis.
What many don't know is that he was originally going to enter the clergy, but couldn't quite manage to pass his
divinity exam at Magdalen College, Oxford University. But that was okay, it allowed him the opportunity to master
his real love, architecture, which he came by perhaps genetically in that his father, Ernest, was a cabinet maker,
a trade which had been in the family for several generations. In 1930 he was appointed assistant editor of The Architectural Review.
This, of course allowed him the opportunity to try his hand at a bit of poetry. And within a year his first collection
of poetry (Mount Zion). His
second book (Ghastly Good Taste),
a commentary on then contemporary architecture, was published in 1934.
His output became rather prolific when he and his wife, Penelope, moved to Berkshire, and he took on the job of
film critic for the Evening Standard
and continued to write poetry. He published his next book, Continual Dew, in 1937 and began work on the series of "Shell Guides" to the counties of England
at that time.
The Guides were first published in the 1930s. Betjeman not only edited them, but they are said to have been his
idea along with Jack Beddington (who allegedly provided him with 20 quid to produce a mockup guide), the publicity
manager of Shell-Mex Ltd., which sponsored them. Each guide was concerned with a specific county in a comprehensive
and well illustrated gazetteer. The first in the series, John Betjeman’s Cornwall, was published in June 1934 by
the Architectural Press.
During the '30s and '40s, he produced books and magazine articles regularly. In 1941, he went to Dublin where he
worked as Press Officer to the British Representative (the IRA suspected he was a spy, and considered assassinating
him. However, on reading his poetry, apparently they decided otherwise.
Returning to England in 1943 he went to work for the Ministry of Information, and continued writing for a number
of publications. A Few Late Chrysanthemums was published in 1952 going a long way to make him a well-known figure in the UK. He was also making
radio and television appearances during this period. In these appearances he commented on architecture and campaigned
for many threatened buildings.
Collected Poems and his verse
autobiography, Summoned by Bells,
were both best sellers at this time and his broadcasting career continued during the 1960s and '70s, with documentaries
such as Metroland and A Passion for Churches. His last book of new poems,
A Nip in The Air, was published
in 1974. From the mid-'70s he suffered from Parkinson's Disease, with a series of strokes further reducing his
activities and mobility.
"Nostalgia for the near past..."
Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature described him as "known for his nostalgia for the near past, his exact sense of place, and his
precise rendering of social nuance, which made him widely read at a time when much of what he wrote about was vanishing."
He despaired at the gradual erosion of the English landscape by what he regarded as the ugliness of the encroachment
of modern industrial elements.
It is perhaps for that reason that he wrote (as Richard M Farran) Ground Plan to Skyline for the "Take Home Books" series.
|In that pamphlet he wrote, "Architecture is not a professional secret. It is something
everyone can enjoy. Appreciation of it comes from using one's eyes. There are no towns or villages in England without
buildings worth looking at.
"Buildings do not have to be old to ge good architecture. It does so happen that old buildings are often more
interesting and even more beautiful as architecture than new ones. This is partly because they are well built and
would have fallen down long ago had then not been, It is also because they adhered to certain rules of proportion
which were almost instinctive to our forbears."
Plan to Skyline
Likewise, he wrote the Foreword to Tony Aldous' Goodbye, Britain?
|This might have been an apocolyptic view of Britain's future had Aldous, former environment
reporter for The Times been
less of a writer. As it is he painted a very negative picture of its results on the cities, towns, villages during
the two post-war decades ending in 1974.
As Betjeman says in the Foreward, "The strength of this book is in its restraint."
John Betjeman died on May 19th 1984, at his home in Trebetherick. He was buried in the nearby church of St.Enodoc.
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