Sir John Betjeman 1906-1984

John Betjeman was born in London, the only child of a cabinet maker of Dutch descent. During World War I the family dropped the last “n” from the surname to make it appear less German. He was educated at Highgate School where T S Eliot was a teacher, the Dragon School in Oxford, and Marlborough College in Wiltshire, where he founded The Heretick, which satirised Marlborough’s obsession with sport. He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read English Language and Literature, famously taking his teddy bear with him. He was the editor of Cherwell in 1927. He left without a degree following a series of examination mishaps and nursed a lifelong hostility towards his tutor C S Lewis, who did not have a high opinion of his work. In 1974 he was awarded an honorary degree by the university.

After university he worked briefly as a teacher and then film critic for the Evening Standard and the Londoner’s Diary. He became the assistant editor of the Architectural Review in 1930, a post he held for five years, also becoming a member of MARS, a group of young modernist architects. In 1933 he married Penelope Chetwode and they had two children.

During WWII he worked for the Ministry of Information and in 1941 he was appointed press attaché in Dublin, where he may have been involved in intelligence work, and in 1944 he was transferred to Bath. In 1948 his wife converted to Catholicism and they drifted apart. A few years later he met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, with whom he maintained a close, lifelong romantic relationship.

By 1948 Betjeman had published five collections of verse. He was a founder-member of the Victorian Society and, passionate about architecture, in the 1960s and 1970s wrote books on this subject and became a prolific broadcaster. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease in his old age and died in Cornwall after a series of strokes, aged 77. He won many awards during his lifetime, including the Queen’s Medal for Poetry and the CBE in 1960 and was knighted in 1969. He served as the Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984.

Betjeman wrote with a light touch and his poems are humorous and satirical. He often poked fun at contemporary society for its shallowness and made use of light verse for a serious purpose. His poems display a great deal of originality and ingenuity, are easily intelligible and written with warmth and clarity. A volume of his Collected Poems was published in 1958 and his Uncollected Poems posthumously in 1982. Two volumes of his letters were published in 1994 by his daughter, the writer Candida Lycett Green. There is a monument to him in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

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