Sir John Betjeman, CBE (1906-1984) was born on this day 28 August in 1906, he was an English poet, writer, and broadcaster and Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death. He began his career as a journalist and ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television. He was an only child, and by accounts had a lonely childhood, taking comfort from his teddy bear, Archibald, later to feature in his children’s story, Archie and the Strict Baptists and his poem Archibald (which you can see below).
He attended Oxford University’s newly formed School of English Language and Literature but left Oxford without a degree, which bothered him for the rest of his life, although he accepted an honorary doctorate of letters from Oxford in 1974.
After leaving Oxford, he worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard, where he also wrote for their high-society gossip column, the Londoner’s Diary and was employed by the Architectural Review between 1930 and 1935. In 1939, Betjeman was rejected for military service in World War II but found war work with the films division of the Ministry of Information. In 1941 he became British press attaché in neutral Dublin, Ireland, it is thought that he may have been involved with the gathering of intelligence.
Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland during the “Emergency” (the war) including “The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922” (written during the war). From March to November 1944 Betjeman was assigned to another wartime job, working on publicity for the Admiralty in Bath.
After the war Betjeman he and his wife, Penelope, drifted apart and in 1951 he met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. By 1948 Betjeman had published more than a dozen books. Five of these were verse collections, including one in the USA. He continued writing guidebooks and works on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s and started broadcasting. He was a founder member of the Victorian Society and was closely associated with the culture and spirit of Metro-land, as outer reaches of the Metropolitan Railway were known before the war. In 1973 he made a widely acclaimed television documentary for the BBC called Metro-Land. For the last decade of his life Betjeman suffered increasingly from Parkinson’s disease. He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, on 19 May 1984, aged 77, he is buried nearby at St Enodoc’s Church.
His Poetry – Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, his ironic comic verse is accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant style. Betjeman was an Anglican and his religious beliefs come through in some of his poems In the poem “Christmas”, one of his most openly religious pieces, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth do so in the form of a question “And is it true…?”
One of my favourites is his poem about his teddy bear, Archibald here are the first 2 stanzas and the last one:
the full poem can be found here: