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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

John Betjeman - My Favourite Poet

John Betjeman was an only child, born in 1906 in Highgate, London, the son of a cabinet -maker of German descent; the original family name ‘Betjemann’ was anglicised at the time of the Great War. His early childhood education was at a neighbourhood school, but aged 11 years he attended a private Boarding School, followed by Public School at Marlborough, and finally Oxford University. On leaving, he obtained a post as English teacher at a local school. He enjoyed a broad range of interests, with his enthusiasm for architecture and writing poetry matched by his love of the steam railway and the English countryside. He became the film critic for a London newspaper, the Evening Standard, also assistant editor of the Architectural Review. During the 1930’s he wrote and had published three books of poems. He married in the early 1930s, Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshall Lord Chetwode, a former senior army officer in India. During the 2nd World War he was Press Attache to the British ambassador in Eire for a short while, apparently marked down by the Republicans as a suspected British spy, only reprieved after ‘due consideration’ of his poetry! He was then employed in the Ministry of Information till war end, at which time he had became a well known figure in radio and early television programmes commenting on architecture and stately buildings throughout England. He continued to write poetry, which when published, achieved ‘best seller’ status. He was knighted in 1969 and in 1972 was appointed Poet Laureate. In the mid 1970s he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Over the following years he suffered a series of mild strokes, dying in 1984 at his home in Cornwall, where he is buried.

John Betjeman Centre, Wadebridge, Cornwall.

John Betjeman was a member of the Church of England, with sympathies inclined to ‘High Church’. His vast range of poetry includes a gently reminiscent work, entitled ‘Anglo-Catholic Congresses’, in which some of the sentiments expressed, albeit concerning the ‘Anglican High Church’, also revive memories of the Roman Catholic Church in this country some sixty years ago.


We, who remember the Faith, the grey-headed ones,
Of those Anglo-Catholic Congresses swinging along,
Who heard the South Coast salvo of incense-guns
And surged to the Albert Hall in our thousands strong
With ‘extreme’ colonial bishops leading in song

We, who remember, look back to the blossoming May-time
On ghosts of servers and thurifers after Mass,
The slapping of backs, the flapping of cassocks, the play-time,
A game of Grandmother’s Steps on the vicarage grass-
“Father, a little more sherry? - I’ll fill your glass”

We recall the triumph, that Sunday after Ascension,
When our Protestant suffragan suffered himself to be coped –
The SYA and the Scheme for Church Extension –
The new diocesan’s not as ‘sound’ as we’d hoped,
And Kensit threatens and has Sam Gurney poped?

Yet, under the ‘Travers baroque’, in a limewashed whiteness,
The fiddle-back vestments a-glitter with morning rays,
Our Lady’s image, in multiple-candled brightness,
The bells and banners – those were the waking days
When Faith was taught and fanned to a golden blaze.

‘John Betjeman’s Collected Poems’ first published 1958, by John Murray, London.

For the unenlightened - of which I was one until I researched this, I can add some information concerning those
named in this poem. Martin Travers (1886-1948) was a noted Church architect, designer, and stained - glass painter, who in the 1920s was a major influence in the ‘Back to Baroque’ church furnishing style promoted by the ‘High Church’, Anglo-Catholic Society of St Peter and St Paul (SSPP).. He designed elaborate pastiches of Baroque altars and other church furnishings for the SSPP in many churches, including:- the Church of the Good Shepherd, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey, designed in the style of a Spanish Mission chapel; St Dunstan with the Holy Angels, Cranford, Middx.(altar and extensive range of church furnishings); St Augustine, Queens Gate, London,(retablo); St George, Headstone, Harrow, Middx (stained glass); St Michael & All Angels, Bedford Park, London (stained glass), and numerous others churches.
Samuel Gurney was a driving force within the SSPP, in later life becoming Squire of Compton Beauchamp, Oxon. With him was Ronald Knox who converted to Rome in 1917, later becoming Mgr.Ronald Knox renowned for his spiritual writings.

'Martin Travers 1886 -1948' - An Appreciation
by Rodney Warrener & Michael Yelton
(Available from Unicorn Press, 76, Great Suffolk Street, London SE1 0BL)

For myself and I suspect others of my generation, the ‘Corpus Christi’ processions, ‘Our Lady’s’ May Day processions, and Good Friday ‘Way of the Cross’ processions, regular occurrences sixty years ago, sometimes with many hundreds of participants, threading their way through the main streets of large towns, publicly acknowledging and worshipping God, recall memories of a Catholic Church in England in which one was proud to belong, and proud to proclaim this fact to the world on the occasion of special religious events. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am no longer proud to be a Catholic, I am and I thank God for this great privilege and blessing, but I find it difficult if not impossible, to relate the Catholic Church today in this country, with the same Church of my youth. How many remember the ‘Vocations’ exhibition, held, if my memory serves me right, first in Olympia, S.Kensington, London, in the early 1950s, with representation by an incredible number of different Religious Orders, for men and women, and crowds of visitors - including many young people thoroughly enjoying their official day-out from school. I seem to remember that this was followed up some years later, by a similar exhibition in Westminster Hall. Those were exciting times for the Church, particularly for those young people to whom the idea of becoming a priest or nun, or a serving religious, was a real possibility. After all the numbers of Religious Orders and the variety of the work they did, covered every possible aspiration:- Contemplative, Missionary, Nursing, Teaching, Parish, all were provided for. However the world was rapidly changing, religious beliefs and practice were under increasing pressure from materialism and secularism in society, influencing every home particularly through the media, especially television, and exerting a growing influence on social attitudes and morals, an influence generally for the worse. In the 1960s we had Vatican 2, as a result of which the traditional role of the Parish Priest was arguably sacrificed to the cause of ‘laity involvement’; Religious Orders relaxed their rules and often their role; Nuns adopted a ‘practical’ dress code, often assuming the mantle of ‘Social Worker’rather than religious; Large numbers of priests and religious abandoned their vocation; ‘Ecumenism’ became the number one priority, with ‘Catholic tradition’ the ‘baby’ thrown out with the bathwater- for a false and impossible religious unity; The new face of Collegiality, resulted in confusion and some would say,diminution of ‘personal’ responsibility among Bishops; Doctrinal confusion and ignorance, poor and inadequate catechesis, with joint Catholic/CE Schools so often failing to provide Catholic children with even a basic knowledge of their Catholic faith. All this over just a few years, so it was hardly surprising that seminaries closed through lack of vocations, Religious Orders died out for the same reason, numbers of clergy reduced dramatically with many churches closing. Today many Catholic schools are Catholic in name only, with the truths of the Catholic faith neglected and replaced with a ‘hybrid’ of humanist/general religious beliefs. I am sure that there are exceptions, but I fear that these are few and far between. One can go on, but I have probably written too much already.

In conclusion, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, I believe that there are signs of a Catholic renewal in this country. Since our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, issued his ‘Motu Proprio’ confirming that all priests had the freedom and the right to celebrate the Mass in the traditional Latin form and in accordance with the rite laid down by St Pius V, there has been a resurgence of interest in the traditional liturgy, a liturgy which has served the Church well for the past 500 years and which has provided spiritual nourishment and graces for many Saints and Martyrs. The younger generation in particular, seem to increasingly recognise and welcome this. In a spirit of cautious optimism and holy hope, it seems fitting to repeat the final two lines of Betjemen's poem:-

‘The bells and banners, those were the waking days
When Faith was taught and fanned to a golden blaze.’

Thank you John Betjeman, for these memories, and may the spirit of those days soon return. We pray to ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’ - venerated in England since the 11th century, possibly earlier, and to ‘St George’, our patron Saint, for the conversion of England.

St Enodoc Church,Trebetherick, Cornwall, where John Betjeman is buried.


russell said...

Have just re-read Anglo Catholic Congresses, and come across your blog when searching for SYA and Scheme for Church Extension. Any ideas?

Have you seen our Traditional CofE Website: ? We seem to be working and praying for the same thing!

If you send an email to one of the contacts on the site, I will send you a copy of our latest quarterly which, coincidentally, contains this poem.

russell said...

I came across your blog having just re-read Anglo Catholic Congresses, and searched for SYA and Church Extension Scheme. Any ideas?

It rather looks as if we are praying and seeking for the same thing. Have you visited our Traditional Church site:

If you email me, I will send you a copy of our latest quarterly, which contains this poem with some relevant thoughts.

g88keeper said...

Howard Mantin Otho Travers was his name at birth. I am not sure how he came to be called Martin, though it seems likely it was because Mantin was a family name, and Martin was just easier to say. I know his because I have his passport, and set up his Wikipedia article. My late Mother was married to him, very happily, for about a year at the end of his life, and because he hadn't made another Will after marrying her, he died intestate, and she took on the task of administering his Estate, which took about ten years. So when I was born in 1953, I soon came to know and love his work, being surrounded by it as a child. I still have the figure of the crucified Christ, in wood, that he was working on when he died, a commission for the Redemptorist Fathers at Mirfield, which his assistant, Mr Crawford, actually completed for them. My Mother could not part with Travers' original, which is why I have it. I also have a pencil sketch of his face, done by Olaf Yates.

g88keeper said...

Travers was born Howard Mantin Otho Travers. I think Mantin was a family name. He was dead some years before I was born in 1953, but had been very happily married to my late Mother for the last year of his life. She found herself administering his Estate, because he had omitted to re-make his Will after marrying her, and therefore died intestate. So, in my early childhood, I was surrounded by his work, as it took ten years to finalise his affairs. I still have a pencil sketch of his face, by Olaf Yates; and the wooden crucified Christ he was working on when he died, which my Mother could not bring herself to send to the Redemptorist Fathers at Mirfield. Their commission was fulfilled very adequately by Mr Crawford, who was Travers's workshop assistant, so everyone is happy!

umblepie said...

g88keeper:- thank you for your very interesting information. As you say his output was really impressive - in fact your comment has revived my own interest. I must dig deeper! Thanks again.