When these words appeared in John Betjeman’s twitter feed in 1937, the boys in blue were at his door by lunchtime thanks to an alert troll and an ever balanced tabloid press. “A clearer incitement to commit an act of terrorism, it would be hard to imagine,” as the Mail editorial quite reasonably put it. Or was it, in the words of the statement issued swiftly on behalf of its member by the National Union of Poets, Narrators, Voiceovers and Allied Trades, “taken out of context” and “just a bit of banter”? The offending tweet was deleted that same day and replaced by 150 characters about a Miss J Hunter Dunn and a game of tennis.
I worry about these things so you don’t have to.
BBC4, the one TV channel I would wish to have with me on my desert island (along with Sky Sports News of course – how could I survive without the wall to wall melodrama of Transfer Window Deadline Day?), ran two programmes this week on Betjeman – a documentary by his biographer, A.N. Wilson, followed by a re-run of a programme made for the BBC by Betjeman in 1973 when he was Poet Laureate.
This film, “Metro-Land”, celebrated suburban life in the area to the north-west of London that developed in the early 20th century around the Metropolitan Railway (later the Metropolitan line of the Underground). It comprised a series of vignettes of life in the suburbs of Metro-Land, drawn together by Betjeman’s commentary (Neasden: “home of the gnome and the average citizen”), partly in verse, and inter-woven with black and white film shot from a Metropolitan train in 1910.
There is a fondness in Betjeman’s writing, and evident in his television appearances, not only for “the high life”, beautiful houses and ecclesiastical architecture, but also for more mundane aspects of British life, like the seaside holiday, the pier and the traditional country scene. These were subjects he frequently celebrated in his poetry and pined for in “Slough”:
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling, fogeyish image. His wryly comic verse is accessible. He talks of Ovaltine and Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears.
Setting aside the question of whether Betjeman’s words in 1937 led directly to the Luftwaffe raids of WW2, he did surely deploy his pen effectively in the cause of conservation. A founder member of the Victorian Society, he fought a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to save London’s Euston Arch from demolition when the station was being rebuilt in the 1960s, but enjoyed success in other efforts, including those to save both St Pancras station and the adjoining hotel. A statue of him now stands in the renovated station concourse.
As the subject for my first blog, earlier this year, I wrote about the architectural journalist and critic, the late Ian Nairn.
Nairn died at the age of 52 from cirrhosis of the liver and chronic alcoholism. Betjeman didn’t. While Betjeman celebrated Metro-Land, Nairn, in his book, “Outrage”, described his nightmare view of “Subtopia” — the areas around cities that had in his view been failed by urban planning, losing their individuality and spirit of place. The two approaches are not incompatible, the early aspirations of Metro-Land becoming tarnished and lost as the new suburbs were in turn engulfed by sprawl.
The world famous Mildred Avenue Conservation Area, with its unique layout and bewildering array of architectural gems
Nairn was an equally powerful wordsmith in the cause of condemning what he saw as bad and hailing the good, in a style very much his own. “Glasgow is headed for disaster.” “No change here in Norwich’s steady, complacent slide down to vacuity.” He referred to the elephant on the Albert Memorial as having “a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his cheque-book”. Whether he was always right is a matter for debate – (Sheffield’s) “Park Hill is undoubtedly a success”?
Those who care about the landscape and townscape of the places where they live or work owe much to campaigners who won’t lie down. While the profit margin generally determines what is built, I for one acknowledge a debt to those who have at least put conservation and good modern design on the agenda. The fight goes on: here in Lewes, now embedded in the South Downs National Park, we are blessed with organisations and individuals prepared to make a lot of noise in favour of better design and architectural respect from potential developers.
More poetry please, more ranting!
Footnote: Hip op bulletin: A man came to the house this morning to adjust the height of the furniture and check the shower so that I don’t damage “their” hip when I come home from hospital with it in two weeks’ time. This does not make me feel any younger. I am told that I will need a long-handled thing to help me put my shoes and socks on but I say, “What are family for?” Mrs. Blog says I will have to have my beard tidied before I go in, but I don’t think she told me why. And many thanks to those of you who have offered back-up supplies of wax earplugs.
It’s good to see that the hospital is taking its risk assessments seriously…