Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Memoriam: John Betjeman

To people who aren't poets, poets are either semi-divine - and therefore revered for their ability with words - or else assumed to be pompous and/or stuffy*; Sir John Betjeman, who served as Britain's Poet Laureate and was knighted in 1960 (which honour was later upgraded in 1969), described himself in Who's Who as a 'poet and hack', a description many of the poets of my acquaintance would readily apply to themselves. The ones who wouldn't are self-important tosspots anyway, good only for their entertainment (and potentially food) value.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1906, Betjeman spent his life turning his back on the comfort of a middle-class upbringing, despite the impossibility of doing just that in a country obsessed with class - a country in which a posh person could utter a yob sentiment, but if it was made in a posh accent would be utterly discounted by the same people at whom it was aimed (or, more likely, considered ironic and result in either a thumping or a development deal, depending on location). It's no wonder poetry is still so popular in a country where what one says matters less than how it's said.

Somehow Betjeman managed to obtain considerable popularity in his dotage thanks to numerous appearances on television, by managing to become a parody of the slightly dotty professor, an avuncular figure whose fruitless opposition to the indignities then being visited upon the English countryside became must-watch programmes amongst the selfsame smug nouveau-Londoners whose zeal for urban sprawl were largely responsible for that degradation in the first place.
Poems like Slough offered a visceral reaction to the many horrors of post-war Britain committed by urban planners, whose misanthropy is evident in every block of flats, community centre, and gasworks they got off on tearing down an elegant row of Victorian houses to build. Although Betjeman eventually apologized to the people of Slough for having referred to their city using a peculiar poetic device known as 'the truth', it's not possible for a town which is home to 850 factories to be anything but a visual abortion, no matter how many chav-bait saplings one plants.

Betjeman died in May 1984, survived by his domestic partner Lady Elizabeth Cavendish; his most prominent memorial today is a statue of him outside London's St Pancras Station, the kind of elegant Victorian pile of which he whole-heartedly approved.

*Or, conveniently, whatever third option coincides with your own view.

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1 comment:

Daniel said...

Wow. 70 years on, a peom about Slough has become a microcosm of England. I watched Brent's rebuttal and also watched Sir John in debate with Kenneth Williams and Dame Maggie Smith on the same stream. Williams commands the whole thing but it's interesting that the topics they cover are still being discussed in Britain now. Empty buildings for invisible men indeed. And there's a great anecdote about Voltaire at the end.