Hugo Williams in the Guardian described John Betjeman’s poetry as ‘a joyous celebration of his times and an affectionate satire on his middle-class roots’. Conjuring images of a character from Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, only with a more serious side, Williams’ description of the poet as a lost treasure to the art is not quite true.
Most people I know have read Betjeman and, much like Williams’, held him closely to themselves as a guarded secret – never to be shared. As though sharing his work would take from the secrets and understanding that they have found within his pages.
Discovering Betjeman after school and outside the standard academic syllabus, for most, is a great joy. Finding in his work an ability to understand a poet for the first time without reference to another book, and enjoying his informal and exploratory style, not to mention the clandestine feeling of finding someone new and undetermined.
John Betjeman was not a poet lost to readers – many poets, Larkin in mind, referenced Betjeman enough so that anyone would find him when they began to read for themselves and stray from the syllabus. Knighted in 1969 and appointed Poet Laureate in 1972 Betjeman lived as a recognised scholar – and his memory is that of a great poet of humour and place.
‘He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered – and terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palsm on the staircase
And was helped to a Hansom outside.’
John Betjeman, 1906 – 1984
final word: neologasm.org, and the joy of new words.