Poetic passions of Betjeman come to light after 30 years

Poet mourned trees 'unloved by superintendents'
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The Independent Online

They are merely passing thoughts from a prolific mind, scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. But the discovery of previously unpublished fragments of verse by Sir John Betjeman have provided new evidence of his enduring preoccupations in his centenary year.

The poems, which have been secured by Leeds University's Brotherton Library, reveal Betjeman's concern about the tower blocks he was encountering in the late 1970s, as well as a profound worry about the removal of the elm trees which offered an elegant contrast to them. There are also lingering memories in verse of summer days in Cornwall, holidaying with his family.

"Those hideous blocks that slam the sky," Betjeman remarks of the high-rise towers, with the same distaste that inspired the famous line: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/ It isn't fit for humans now".

In the extract which recalls Betjeman's family holidays in Trebetherick, North Cornwall, as a boy - nurturing a lifelong affection for and association with the region which is reflected in his publications - he also writes: "How safe I felt when travelling to the West."

The poems are among 12 secured by the library at a Sotheby's auction, and will build on the major collection donated by the university's benefactors Geoffrey and Fay Elliott. For some 30 years the poems have been in the possession of the family of Reg Read, a bookseller and close friend of Betjeman, to whom the former poet laureate handed them.

In the same acquisition, the university has also secured a rare copy of The Chameleon, an Oxford student magazine which played a part in the downfall of Oscar Wilde. The playwright's work for the obscure journal became the focus of attention at his indecency trial because another contribution to the magazine was a poem by Wilde's undergraduate lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which ends with the now celebrated line: "The love that dares not speak its name".

But the Betjeman acquisitions contribute to Leeds' growing reputation as a centre for Betjeman papers - a resource Britain has been short of, since the poet sold many of his own manuscripts to the University of Victoria library in Canada, where access to them is limited.

The new works are made all the more intriguing by the fact that they were written "on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper he had in his pocket," said Chris Sheppard, of Brotherton Library. "What we see in these fragments is the ghost of an idea as it came to him."

Betjeman's concern about his local council's decision to fell trees affected by Dutch elm disease, scribbled out in one of the new poems, reflected a concern he had articulated nearly 30 years earlier. A farmer's removal of the same species of tree lay behind his decision in 1951 to move away from Farnborough, Berkshire.

In the second part of his three-volume biography on the former poet laureate, John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, the poet's biographer, Bevis Hillier, reveals that he moved to nearby Wantage in Oxfordshire, because - in the words of the poet's daughter Candida Lycett Green - he "minded intensely" that one of the local farmers, a Mr Laurence, had felled elms near Farnborough Church.

The extract of verse about Britain's elms, dated like the first piece to the late 1970s, is slightly more legible than others and seems to reflect Betjeman's judgement that the country's municipalities were rather too energetic in their quest to chop down trees which had Dutch elm disease. "They have gone, those trees, that meant so much in our landscape," he writes, "Thou bountiful trees unloved by past superintendents/Because that bough might fall and injure a [illegible] head."

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