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Last Updated: Monday, 28 August 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Man behind 'nation's teddy bear'
The centenary of Sir John Betjeman's birth has provoked a renewed surge of interest in one of the most beloved English poets of the 20th century.

John Betjeman
John Betjeman was born in London on 28 August 1906
Teashops, teddy bears and sporty young women: the verse of Sir John Betjeman is an affirmation of an olde England that is no more.

It is this warm-hearted nostalgia that made the man The Times dubbed "teddy bear to the nation" such a well-loved figure - not to mention one of the few Poet Laureates whom almost everyone can quote.

His work - wry, genial and humorous, though not without shafts of melancholy and regret - always evokes a strong sense of time and place.

He was also a hugely respected broadcaster who used his profile to campaign for heritage, architecture and culture.

His nemeses were the town planners, developers and bureaucrats who concreted over England's green and pleasant land in the name of progress.

Topography

"Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough," he wrote in 1937 - a sentiment that has permanently tarnished the image of that Berkshire conurbation.

The poem was famous enough to be recited by Ricky Gervais' David Brent in an episode of BBC sitcom The Office.

Ricky Gervais in The Office
David Brent famously quoted one of his poems in The Office
Yet it is just one of the many instances where topography and local geography feature prominently in his work.

His better poems, he wrote in 1947, were "written from a love of the people and the places they describe".

Love, however, was not just a romantic idyll for the writer, but an earthy, sensual fact of life.

Sex was never far from his thoughts, especially in his later years. When asked in 1981 if he had any regrets, he famously replied he hadn't had enough.

That was despite a lengthy relationship with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, the woman to whom he turned after his marriage to Penelope Chetwode cooled.

In his new biography, journalist AN Wilson says this state of affairs left the poet wracked with guilt.

'Torture'

"He was in it right up to his neck, all the way up to the end, playing one woman off against another," he told the BBC News website.

"He couldn't let either go, which was torture for his wife, for his "other wife" as he sometimes called Elizabeth, and also for himself."

John Betjeman
In later life he became a popular and respected broadcaster
Wilson suggests this situation, though regrettable, may have "absolutely fitted his need for gloom and self-reproach".

"He was a depressive and wrestled with the terrible darkness of that," he said. "He was obsessed by death and the physical dissolution of his body."

Despite this, continues the author, Betjeman remained "a tremendously kind person with a great capacity for sympathy and a wonderful sense of humour".

"The things he wrote about were directly important to everybody - first loves, memories of childhood, places and landscapes you know and love.

"These are very basic things, but if you look at the writing of some of his contemporaries you find they were not writing about them at all."

Betjeman by AN Wilson is published by Hutchinson, priced 20.


SEE ALSO
'Human poet' Betjeman remembered
28 Aug 06 |  Entertainment
Remembering Betjeman with bells
27 Jul 06 |  Cornwall
Classic poets' voices go online
30 Nov 05 |  Entertainment
New poem praises 'unfit' Slough
27 Apr 05 |  Berkshire

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