The River Brent in north east London was the inspiration for one of Britain’s best loved poets.

Sir John Betjeman visited the area on the long walks that inspired much of his verse and immortalised the river in poems such as Middlesex.

The Poet Laureate was best known for playful light-hearted poems like Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

But admirers and critics of his verse were sharply divided over its worth.

Detractors dismissed him as a ‘minor poet who scribbles verse’ while his supporters, including the formidable Philip Larkin, thought Betjeman one of the country’s greatest talents.

He was seen as an establishment figure. His unashamedly royalist connections – he was the Queen Mother’s favourite poet – and dewy eyed reminiscences of a privileged  upbringing putting him at odds with the ‘angry young generation of the 1940s and 50s.

Academics accused him of dumbing down poetry for the masses and claimed his compositions showed ‘no more skill than the men who wrote jingles on Christmas cards.’

But it did little to sway public affection for Betjeman.

The publication of his Collected Poems in 1968 was an immediate bestseller and subsequent editions sold more than one million copies.

It was a remarkable achievement for a boy who C.S Lewis described in his youth as a ‘pretentious playboy’ and whose first efforts at verse were ridiculed by his school master.

Betjeman won an enduring place in the nation’s heart and went on to become the country’s Poet Laureate.

Much was written about the humour of his work but he was also a passionate opponent of what he called the ‘planster’s vision’ and relentless destruction of historical buildings and countryside.

He regularly appeared in letters’ columns of national newspapers waging a war of words against developers and submitted 70 letters to The Times during a campaign to save Waterloo Bridge from destruction.

The paper remarked on his death in 1984 that his ‘enthusiasm made him perhaps the most influential conservationist of his time.’

It is comforting to know that many of the buildings he championed, such as the Criterion Theatre and the churches of St Saviour, Aberdeen Park and St Mary-le-Strand have since been restored to their former glory.

The River Brent fared less well. Much of the river was corseted in concrete as a flood prevention measure in the 1950s or driven underground by the suburban growth of London.

Betjeman would have been sad to know that ‘the gentle Brent wandering Wembley wards at will’ met such a fate

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