Sir John Betjeman CBE (28 August 1906–19 May 1984) was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack". He was born to a middle-class family in Edwardian London. Although he claimed he failed his degree at Oxford University, his early ability in writing poetry and interest in architecture supported him throughout his life. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as British Poet Laureate and a much-loved figure on British television.
Early life and education
Betjeman was born Betjemann, which was changed to the less Germanic "Betjeman" during the First World War. He started life at Parliament Hill Mansions on the bottom edge of Hampstead Heath in north London. His parents Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann had a family firm, which manufactured ornamental household furniture and gadgets so loved by Victorians. (Dan Cruickshank argues that Betjeman's flirtation with Modernism was a reaction against this background - BBC TV 29 August 2006.) His father's forebears had come from Bremen, Germany more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, London. In 1909, the Betjemanns left Parliament Hill Mansions, moving half a mile north to more opulent Highgate, where, from West Hill, in the reflected glory of the Burdett-Coutts estate, they could look down on those less fortunate:
Here from my eyrie, as the sun went down,
I heard the old North London puff and shunt,
Glad that I did not live in Gospel Oak.
Betjeman's early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by the poet T S Eliot, after which he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. While at school, reading the works of Arthur Machen won him over to an allegiance to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of vital importance personally and for his later writing and interest in art and architecture. At Magdalen College, Oxford Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities; although C.S. Lewis was his tutor, they probably had a dislike for each other. Betjeman had a poem published in Isis, a university magazine, and was editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927.
It is a common misapprehension, cultivated by Betjeman himself, that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory holy scripture examination, known as Divinity (in Summoned by Bells), or "Divvers" (colloquially). In Hilary Term 1928, after several previous attempts, Betjeman failed Divinity yet again. He was rusticated (temporarily sent down) for Trinity Term to revise for a retake of the exam and was permitted to return in October. Meanwhile, he wrote to G.C. Lee, secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, stating his position and asking to be entered for the pass school (a set of examinations taken on rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve an honours degree). It is thus also a myth that Lewis said "You'd have only got a third"; rather, Lewis informed the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.
Permission to sit the pass school was granted, which was the occasion of Betjeman's famous decision to offer a paper in Welsh. The story told by Osbert Lancaster that a tutor was engaged twice a week by train (first class) from Aberystwyth is probably also apocryphal, since Jesus College had a number of Welsh tutors who would have taught him. Betjeman was finally sent down, permanently this time, at the end of Michaelmas Term 1928 (see B. Hillier, Young Betjeman, pp. 181–194). Pace Hillier (according to whom Betjeman was sent down before he was allowed to sit Divinity again), it has been clarified that he did, in fact, pass Divinity, but failed the Pass School, having achieved a pass in only one of the three papers, namely Shakespeare and contemporaries (not Welsh!) (see Oxford Today, Trinity Term 2006). Although he was never reconciled to Lewis, Betjeman retained a deep fondness for Oxford and several decades later he accepted an honorary D.Litt.
Much of this period of his life is recorded in his blank verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells which was published in 1960 and made into a television film in 1976.