Photograph by Terence Spencer
Justin Gowers introduces the poetry of John Betjeman and the competition in his name.
John Betjeman (1906-1984) was a poet, broadcaster and a lifelong champion of threatened buildings. His interests – ecclesiastical architecture, branch railways, suburbs, provincial towns, and steam trains – might not immediately endear him to young readers today. His poetic output can be broadly seen as a nostalgic backward glance at a bygone age. But Betjeman’s poetry is still relevant and offers much to the modern reader..
Betjeman and Place
Betjeman’s poetry is imbued with a vivid sense of place. Much of his writing is about the places that were close to his heart. Betjeman’s parents began their married life in Highbury and then moved to Highgate. Throughout his life Betjeman’s love of London was absolute. He championed so much of it and grieved at the loss of great edifices such as the Coal Exchange and the Euston Arch as he would for old friends. In the 1960s, he helped to save St Pancras station from the wrecker’s ball. At an early age he developed a passion for railways and the London Underground. In his early teens he would travel all day across London and into the suburbs. Many of his poems were written on trains. The gentle rhythm of a train journey helped him to write down lines on the backs of cigarette packets and old letters. His film Metro-land tells of his love of rail and of the London suburbs.
Child of the First War, forgotten by the Second, we called you Metro-land.
We laid our schemes, lured by the lush brochure,
Down byways beckoned, to build at last the cottage of our dreams,
A city clerk turned countryman again,
and linked to the Metropolis by train.
The new single Metroland by the synth-pop duo OMD draws its inspiration from the brochure Betjeman mentions.
Betjeman at Saint Bartholomew the Great. Photograph by Guy Gravett..
Betjeman fell in love with Cornwall during his childhood holidays and continued to return to it throughout his life. The young Betjeman cycled through Cornish country lanes. The county inspired some of his best poems and most evocative prose. The Cornish cliffs and beaches, modest churches and formidable sea had the power to stir him which only first love possesses. His poem ‘Trebetherick’ recalls childhood picnics on the beach.
Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,
Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet,
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,
Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette..
To honour the memory of Betjeman’s life work, the spirit of the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People (2006 –) is to encourage young people to develop an appreciation of their local environment by depicting a sense of place.
The competition is open to 10- 13 year olds. Each entrant may submit one poem about their local surroundings, which can include their house, street, neighbourhood or city and can describe any aspect of them.
Betjeman’s daughter Candida Lycett Green chose the “place” theme because it was a strong part of her father’s poetry and it was a way of getting young people to observe their surroundings. This awareness of place was so much part of Betjeman’s whole life. His films are all about encouraging a sense of appreciation and wonder in somewhere like St Pancras station or a tiny back garden in Coventry.
The theme of place is meant to be open to interpretation. Last year a teacher wrote from Rochdale saying her year 9 pupils had studied the Shakespearean sonnet and had set about writing their own sonnet about a place in Rochdale, be it the war memorial, Spotland football ground or the lake. The pupils showed that you can use old forms for new ideas. One prize-winning poem that sticks in my mind was an evocation of the seaside resort of Wells-next-the-Sea, influenced by the young poet’s study of ee cummings’ experimental poetic techniques.
Betjeman’s poetry is not a staple of the school curriculum and the poetry competition that bears his name aims to introduce a new generation of readers to his poetry. The competition draws together the strands of Betjeman’s life and work: his eulogising of his surroundings and his conservationism. The prize-giving, held in the space around the statue of Betjeman on the concourse of St Pancras station on National Poetry Day, celebrates Betjeman’s love for railways, station architecture and afternoon tea.
The 2014 competition is now closed, but will open again in 2015. Keep an eye on the website www.betjemanpoetryprize.co.uk for details..
Poetry of John Betjeman reprinted by permission of John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.
After working in publishing for more than six years, Justin Gowers became a learning support worker for students with learning difficulties. He has been the prize organiser of the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People since 2009.
Published April, 2013