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John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures’

Gavin Ewart, 6 December 1984

... When I see yet another work of hagiography concerning Sir John Betjeman, it makes me want to vomit! Show me, I want to say, please, the ‘geography’ of the house!1 But Betjeman wasn’t nasty, in fact very far from it. It’s probably the Murrays who are such penny-turners (Byron’s one was a Philistine ...

Happy Knack

Ian Sansom: Betjeman, 20 February 2003

John BetjemanNew Fame, New Love 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 736 pp., £25, November 2002, 0 7195 5002 5
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... helps explain why Bevis Hillier has written an enormous biography of a dead English minor poet. John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love is the second volume of Hillier’s proposed trilogy and covers, roughly, the years 1933-58, the period when Betjeman, as Larkin put it, ‘became ...

The Best of Betjeman

John Bayley, 18 December 1980

John Betjeman’s Collected Poems 
compiled by the Earl of Birkenhead.
Murray, 427 pp., £2.50, June 1980, 0 7195 3632 4
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Church Poems 
by John Betjeman.
Murray, 63 pp., £5.95, March 1981, 0 7195 3797 5
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... In Anthony Burgess’s latest novel, Earthly Powers, there is a parody of a Betjeman poem. Thus kneeling at the altar rail We ate the word’s white papery wafer. Here, so I thought, desire must fail, My chastity be never safer. But then I saw your tongue protrude To catch the wisp of angel’s food. In a brilliant piece of word play the angel food cake of the children’s tea-party becomes the Host: sex, worship and childhood come together on the tip of the darting tongue that demurely holds it ...

Down with Cosmopolitanism

Gillian Darley, 18 May 2000

Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman v. Pevsner 
by Timothy Mowl.
Murray, 182 pp., £14.99, March 2000, 9780719559099
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... John Betjeman was the voice of postwar Englishness: at best, humorous, quirky and enthusiastic about some of the oddest things; at worst, parochial and smug shading into bitter. How ironic, in view of later developments and the argument of Timothy Mowl’s book, that Nikolaus Pevsner’s first visit to England, in 1930, was to research a new topic: Englishness in art ...

Piperism

William Feaver: John and Myfanwy Piper, 17 December 2009

John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art 
by Frances Spalding.
Oxford, 598 pp., £25, September 2009, 978 0 19 956761 4
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... a wan light on pews reserved for the use of MPs in St Margaret’s, Westminster, are untypical of John Piper. Normally, his stained glass seethes, particularly in Coventry Cathedral, where a Piper sunburst behind the boulder that serves as a font irradiates a great wall of clunky fenestration. In Westminster though, in a building studded with fanciful ...

Half-Way up the Hill

Frank Kermode, 7 July 1988

Young Betjeman 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 457 pp., £15.95, July 1988, 0 7195 4531 5
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... John Betjeman was nicely eccentric, and droll in a way mysteriously suited to English taste. His being so droll allowed him to display an out-of-the-way learning that might otherwise have seemed remote and ineffectual, but on which it was his gift to confer a certain centrality. He liked to seem lazy, which is why, having repeatedly failed the easy examination in Divinity then compulsory at Oxford, he went down without a degree ...

The Last Georgian

John Bayley, 13 June 1991

Edmund Blunden: A Biography 
by Barry Webb.
Yale, 360 pp., £18.50, December 1990, 0 300 04634 0
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... gloves, which were unsporting. No gesture was involved, but a certain amount of quiet conviction. John Betjeman and Joan Hunter-Dunn would have approved: indeed Betjeman was a great admirer of Blunden’s poetry. His English Poems ‘was the first book by a living poet I remember saving up to buy. I learned many of his ...
... for John Betjeman) Miss Frith was put on processing; that glue And all those labels. Not seven months there, And Mr Mortimer, who always said ‘Miss Frith’ and never ‘Gill’ or ‘Gillian’, Right through the informal Nineteen-Sixties, Rested one day his two hands on her hips As she sat cross-legged on the high stool At the labelling desk ...

I Should Have Shrieked

Patricia Beer, 8 December 1994

John BetjemanLetters, Vol. I, 1926-1951 
edited by Candida Lycett Green.
Methuen, 584 pp., £20, April 1994, 0 413 66950 5
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... I was less than fifty pages into this first volume of John Betjeman’s Letters when I felt I must be in for an attack of tinnitus. I kept hearing shrieks of laughter. This condition was caused not by the poet himself but by the editor or Candida Lycett Green, his daughter, who seems to value nothing so much about her father as his ability to make people split their sides ...

They never married

Ian Hamilton, 10 May 1990

The Dictionary of National Biography: 1981-1985 
edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls.
Oxford, 518 pp., £40, March 1990, 0 19 865210 0
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... Dictionary of National Biography there are photographs of David Niven, Diana Dors, Eric Morecambe, John Betjeman and William Walton. Dors has a leering ‘Come up and read me sometime’ expression on her face and Niven wears his yacht-club greeter’s smile. Morecambe seems to be laughing at one of his own jokes. Amiable images, devised no doubt to lure ...

The Thought of Ruislip

E.S. Turner: The Metropolitan Line, 2 December 2004

Metro-Land: British Empire Exhibition Number 
by Oliver Green.
Southbank, 144 pp., £16.99, July 2004, 1 904915 00 0
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... Many years later, in the ‘worn memorial’ of the Baker Street buffet under Chiltern Court, John Betjeman sought inspiration for his poem ‘The Metropolitan Railway’, with its opening invocation: ‘Early Electric! With what radiant hope/Men formed this many-branched electrolier’. A stained glass windmill and ‘sepia views of leafy lanes in ...

Bourgeois Reveries

Julian Bell: Farmer Eliot, 3 February 2011

Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper 
by Alexandra Harris.
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., £19.95, October 2010, 978 0 500 25171 3
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... fascination with how the past conceived its own past. How did 1930s sensibilities, from John Betjeman to Cecil Beaton, engage with Georgian and Victorian architecture? What of the interwar flirtation with the Baroque, spoken for by Sacheverell Sitwell, or the period’s notions of Neolithic Britain? (Massingham, a long-out-of-print ...

Short Cuts

Matthew Beaumont: The route to Tyburn Tree, 20 June 2013

... that have been deposited at Cumberland Gate. In a poem written for a BBC documentary in 1968, John Betjeman described the site as a place of martyrdom ‘trodden by unheeding feet’. The ‘greatest crime’ of all, he continued, standing on the roof of Marble Arch and speaking in the voice of a genteel, if irritable prophet, is ‘the martyrdom of ...

The Undesired Result

Gillian Darley: Betjeman’s bêtes noires, 31 March 2005

BetjemanThe Bonus of Laughter 
by Bevis Hillier.
Murray, 744 pp., £25, October 2004, 0 7195 6495 6
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... The dust jacket of the final volume of Bevis Hillier’s epic life of John Betjeman shows the poet laureate seized by giggles. In this lengthy coda to Hillier’s authorised biography Betjeman appears in many lights, but he’s rarely carefree. ‘Nothing frightens me more than the thought of dying,’ he told a friend in 1958 ...

Scots wha hae gone to England

Donald Davie, 9 July 1992

Devolving English Literature 
by Robert Crawford.
Oxford, 320 pp., £35, June 1992, 9780198112983
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The Faber Book of 20th-Century Scottish Poetry 
edited by Douglas Dunn.
Faber, 424 pp., £17.50, July 1992, 9780571154319
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... then who is left to man the supposedly overbearing metropolis, unless it is Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman? The ramparts so frailly manned should have given way long ago to the armies massed against them. What Crawford doesn’t realise is that this indeed has happened; he is sounding the bugle for an assault on a fortress that surrendered years ...

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