My history hero: Tim Dunn chooses John Betjeman (1906–84)
Railway historian and television presenter Tim Dunn chooses John Betjeman as a history hero
John Betjeman: in profile
Sir John Betjeman was an English poet – appointed Poet Laureate in 1972 – writer, and broadcaster. Best known for his poetry celebrating the Britain of the past, he was also an architecture expert, becoming a founding member of the Victorian Society to preserve 19th-century buildings. In the 1960s, he helped save St Pancras Station from demolition. He died in 1984, aged 77, and was buried at St Enodoc’s Church, Cornwall.
When did you first hear about Betjeman?
As a child, I was absolutely transfixed by his 1973 BBC documentary, Metro-Land. What made it so memorable was this erudite, grandfatherly figure, who told the story of how the north-west London suburbs around the Metropolitan Line developed in the early 20th century. That was where I grew up, but thought it rather uninteresting until Betjeman immortalised it.
What kind of man was he?
Sometimes he would wear his heart on his sleeve, as he did in some of his poetry – for instance, talking about the women he admired from afar. But in other respects, he was a private character and something of a snob, as he himself admitted, who enjoyed being seen as part of the upper set.
What made him a hero?
His unassailable devotion to celebrating the world around him; his quest for the joy in everyday life; and his ability to take people with him on that journey. He did this primarily through his poetry and prose, which was nostalgic for English culture slightly out of reach in time. If he was alive today, he might well be making references to things like Blockbuster Video.
I admire him for trying to save historic British buildings – becoming the public face of the modern conservation movement – and for being a friend of the LGBTQ community at a time when we had few allies. Lastly, I love how gentle yet exceptionally naughty he was. On being asked in old age, “Do you have any regrets in life?” he replied, “Oh yes... I haven’t had enough sex!”
What was Betjeman’s finest hour?
Culturally, it would have to be Metro-Land, a BBC collaboration with director Edward Mirzoeff, in which he took the idea of looking at an area, examining the mundane he found and celebrating it. There was another finest hour too: his public campaign to save St Pancras – but for that, the train station would almost undoubtedly be long gone. There’s a statue of him there, and the coattails of his jacket are an exact replica of the roof above him. I think he’d be saddened by the demolition of fine old buildings and their replacement by substandard modern rubbish.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
I have no ambition to be a poet, but he inspired me to make the programmes I do, and I have also helped save a few buildings, such as Smithfield Market in London.
What would you ask Betjeman if you could meet him?
I’d ask him whether he would write a new set of county-by-county architectural guides. I like to think he’d be delighted and say yes, which would give us at least another 30 years of him to enjoy.
Tim Dunn is a railway historian and TV presenter. His series The Architecture the Railways Built and Secrets of the London Underground are both available on UKTV Play
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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