Rediscover the meaning of Christmas with Sir John Betjeman

PUBLISHED: 14:18 09 December 2013 | UPDATED: 14:54 09 December 2013

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman

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John Betjeman was one of the best known poets, writers and broadcasters of the 20th century.

The poet laureate who made the Camel Valley his home loved Christmas - and his poem Christmas deserves to be read aloud this season, argues Roger Paine. Born to a middle class family in Hampstead, North London in 1906, he was knighted in 1969 and held the post of Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death at Trebetherick, Cornwall in 1984.

After school at Marlborough, he went to Magdalen College, Oxford where, despite having immersed himself in books and writing from an early age, he was considered to be a failure and left without a degree. This rankled with him for the rest of his life although he retained an enduring love of Oxford and received an honorary doctorate of letters from the university in 1974. His school and college days are movingly recorded in his blank verse autobiography ‘Summoned by Bells’, published in 1960, and made into a television film in 1976. The book remains a best-seller, not least at Christmas, thanks to the author’s easy-to-read style and candid observations.

The same might be said about his poetry, much of which is immediately recognizable by its wry humour and quintessential Englishness. By using unpretentious rhythms, metre and rhymes (although not as simple as they sometimes appear), Betjeman’s work has always captured the imagination of millions of people from all walks of life. Many of whom would not normally consider reading a poem.

Betjeman was also a prolific writer on architecture, with a fondness for Victorian buildings, especially churches and railway stations. Active in campaigning to save historic buildings from the bulldozers he was instrumental in saving St Pancras railway station in London. When plans to demolish the building were announced he is said to have called the intention a ‘criminal folly’. A statue of him, at platform level, commemorating the part he played in successfully ensuring this magnificent building still exists in its original form was unveiled when the station re-opened as the terminus for Eurostar in November 2007.

During the 1960s and 70s Betjeman made many television appearances, often reading his own work. In his corduroy suit, badly-knotted tie, crumpled collar and battered trilby he portrayed a bumbling and avuncular image. He appeared to be someone who never took himself too seriously, the epitome of the English virtue of understatement. This endeared him to many sections of the public although his critics alleged he was often out of touch, wallowed in nostalgia and did not want to face up to the realities of modern life. Elements of this are probably true but he was always respected for being a deeply religious man, a practising Christian and dedicated to the Anglican church.

In ‘Christmas’, published in a collection entitled ‘A Few Late Chrysanthemums’ in 1954, John Betjeman openly celebrates the religious as well as the secular significance of the birth of Christ. Using the colours found in an artist’s palette, ‘Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green’, to describe those in a church’s stained glass window; or mentioning one-time popular gifts, ‘inexpensive scent’, ‘bath salts’ and ‘hideous tie’ to convey the austerity of Christmas in post-war Britain, he paints a lasting and memorable word picture. While the last three verses proclaim Christ’s birth, they do so in the form of a question, ‘And is it true?’ This has sometimes been regarded as Betjeman questioning his own faith but in view of the poem’s final line is more likely to be an affirmation of his piety.

It is worth recalling John Betjeman’s own words about poetry, ‘Too many people in the modern world view poetry as a luxury, not a necessity like petrol. But to me it’s the oil of life’. This poem surely deserves to be read aloud at Christmas.

The bells of waiting Advent ring,

The Tortoise stove is lit again

And lamp-oil light across the night

Has caught the streaks of winter rain

In many a stained-glass window sheen

From Crimson Lake to Hooker’s Green.

The holly in the windy hedge

And round the Manor House the yew

Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,

The altar, font and arch and pew,

So that the villagers can say

‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day

Provincial public houses blaze,

And Corporation tramcars clang,

On lighted tenements I gaze

Where paper decorations hang,

And bunting in the red Town Hall

Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve

Are strung with silver bells and flowers

As hurrying clerks the City leave

To pigeon-haunted classic towers,

And marbled clouds go scudding by

The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,

And oafish louts remember Mum,

And sleepless children’s hearts are glad,

And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’

Even to shining ones who dwell

Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

A Baby in an ox’s stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,

No loving fingers tying strings

Around those tissued fripperies,

The sweet and silly Christmas things,

Bath salts and inexpensive scent

And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare-

That God was Man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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