Film exposes 'lost' Betjeman poem: Verses from discarded documentary tell of the former Poet Laureate's unhappy schooldays. David Lister reports

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The Independent Online
AN UNPUBLISHED poem by the late Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, has been found, and is reproduced in part here for the first time. It shows the poet's ambivalent attitude to his schooldays at Marlborough College, the Wiltshire public school.

The seven-stanza poem, which displays the evocative Englishness typical of his verse, was written in 1962 as a commentary, spoken by the poet, for a television film on the town.

The poem deals entirely with the school, where Betjeman was often unhappy. Looking back he writes often in sentimental language, but also with a frisson of distaste, describing the school as 'my prison house', and writing less than lovingly about games:

But what of us? The boys of

Marlborough College

Five years we've boarded here,

imbibing knowledge

Five years we shivered in

exiguous shorts

Five years we ran to changing

rooms from sports.

Five 'forgotten films' giving Betjeman's idiosyncratic view of five West Country communities were made more than 30 years ago, shown only in the West Country, and then discarded. They were discovered by Gerry Dawson, a Channel 4 producer, in old film cans when he was researching another archive programme. They have been restored and made into a three-part series, which starts tomorrow night on Channel 4.

The most significant is tomorrow's programme - at 8pm on Channel 4 - the second half of which is spoken in verse by Betjeman, and represents an unpublished, autobiographical poem.

Mr Dawson said: 'These are priceless classics. I could not believe what I had discovered. With the aid of modern digital technology, we have been able to restore much of the original sound and black and white picture quality of these gems. It has been like rediscovering and restoring a Great Master.'

Jonathan Stedall, a documentary maker, who directed much of Betjeman's subsequent television work, worked on the films as a 23- year-old. He recalls that the making of the Marlborough film was difficult as Betjeman viewed the place with 'intensely mixed feelings', liking the town but loathing some aspects of his time at Marlborough College. 'Indeed, the making of the film was the first time in 40 years that Betjeman had returned to his old school and it took a great deal of persuasion to coax him through the gates.'

In the other films, Betjeman more than once mocks modern architecture, engaging in a fictional debate with 'the evil voice of a developer'. In his programme on the seaside resort of Weston-super- Mare, he laments the looming of the supermarket culture, finding solace in the model village, one of Weston's tourist attractions. He remarks: 'It's a curious thing that most of what we like to look at nowadays has to be make-believe.'

The other films focus on Clevedon, Malmesbury and Bath.

The last three stanzas of Marlborough

by John Betjeman

Shades of my prison house, they come to view,

Just as they were, in 1922:

The stone flag passages, the iron bars,

The dressing gowns, the faggings, hats and scarves.

As they come back the memory comes to me

Of my enormous appetite for tea;

A meal I now decidedly detest,

But which, in those days, always seemed the best.

Of course, the college teas were just a joke;

You only ate them when quite stony broke.

The boys who had to queue for tea in hall

Had spent their pocket money, that was all.

The Dining Hall we're looking at is new.

I wonder if it smells of Irish stew,

In the same way the old one used to do?

I wonder if they call the butter, marge?

I wonder if they grumble, and enlarge

On how the tea is made from stewed up socks

And how the cakes are harder than the rocks?

I wonder if they talk of art and song -

'Hurry up Huggins pass the marge along' -

Or hotly argue, blame, or praise or grouse

About some match and who will be cock house.

Dear boys, I leave you to your luscious fare,

Tea time and Marlborough; let us look elsewhere

While you are eating merrily in there,

Across from the dining hall and see

Those still with pocket money having tea

In strange quarter known as Upper School,

Run, it is said, by democratic rule.


How a school boy when the kettle sings

Lives in a world as rich as is a king's]

How sweet are tastes to him, how deep his dreams]

How hopeful and how possible his schemes]

(Photographs omitted)