The Last Laugh

This is the poem I had intended posting last weekend to mark the 30th anniversary of John Betjeman’s death, and as an apology for not having written anything else. (WordPress and, apparently, the Internet Watch Foundation had other ideas). The sun had shone, you see, and I had spent the whole weekend watching cricket.

The Last Laugh

I made hay while the sun shone.
My work sold.
Now if the harvest is over
And the world cold,
Give me the bonus of laughter
As I lose hold.

Fairfield Road

Now, of course, it is going to rain all weekend and I shall have no such excuse.  Where are the Internet Watch Foundation when you really need them?

“The Shivering Children Wait Their Doom” : Betjeman In Matlock Bath

This is John Betjeman’s poem about Matlock Bath (illustrated with a few snaps).  I had forgotten about the poem when I visited, otherwise I would have tried to get one of the Methodist Church that features in it. 

Betjeman knew of Matlock Bath because of his liaison with Lady Elizabeth “Feeble” Cavendish, whose brother owned nearby Chatsworth House.  One might have expected Betjeman to have written something slightly jollier about such a jolly place, but this is very bleak.  Perhaps he should have visited while the illuminations were still on.


Matlock Bath

 From Matlock Bath’s half-timbered station

I see the black dissenting spire—,
Thin witness of a congregation,
Stone emblem of a Handel choir;
In blest Bethesda’s limpid pool,
Comes treacling out of Sunday School.

By cool Siloam’s shady rill–
The sounds are sweet as strawberry jam:
I raise mine eyes unto the hill,
The branchy trees are white with rime
In Matlock Bath this winter-time.

And from the whiteness, grey uprearing,
Huge cliffs hang sunless ere they fall,
A tossed and stoney ocean nearing
The moment to o’erwhelm us all:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
How long wilt thou suspend the wave?

How long before the pleasant acres,
Of intersecting LOVERS’ WALKS

A Lovers' Walk

Are rolled across by limestone breakers,
Whole woodlands snapp’d like cabbage stalks?
O God, our help in ages past,
How long will SPEEDWELL CAVERN last?

In this dark dale I hear the thunder
Of houses folding with the shocks,

The Grand Pavilion - largely obscured by the Riverside Fish 'n' Chip Restaurant

buckling under
The weight of the ROMANTIC ROCKS,
The hardest Blue John ash-trays seem
To melt away in thermal steam.

Deep in their Nonconformist setting
The shivering children wait their doom–
The father’s whip, the mother’s petting
In many a coffee-coloured room;
And attic bedrooms shriek with fright,
For dread of Pilgrims of the Night.

Perhaps it’s this that makes me shiver
As I ascend the slippery path

The View from half way up the Heights

High, high above the sliding river
And terraces of Matlock Bath;

A sense of doom, a dread to see
The Rock of Ages cleft for me.


Though the town has so far not suffered the apocalyptic collapse foreseen by Betjeman, the Methodist Church closed in 1974 and was turned into a furniture store and the Grand Pavilion has recently been deemed “surplus to requirements” by the local council.

Daffodils and a vanished church : St Mary Aldermanbury

I believe it’s a contractual obligation for any blogger to provide at least one picture of daffodils to record the coming of Spring.  I can’t wait for the dozy articles in my back yard to get their act together, so here is a display of daffs from another Garden Where I Sometimes Eat My Lunch.  This was described by Arthur Mee in the 1937 edition of London : Heart of the Empire and Wonder of the World as “a place which should stir the imagination of every Englishman … the church of St Mary Aldermanbury with its gleaming tower …”.  Except, of course, that it isn’t any more.  It was all but destroyed in the Blitz, though, curiously, what was left was tranported to Missouri and reconstructed there.  You can just about see what’s left of it – the stumps of its pillars – in the photograph.

Daffodils - St Mary Aldermanbury


Before the Great Fire there were 97 parish churches in the City of London.  As  an indication of how tightly-packed they must have been there was another church between the end of St Mary (where the red van is) and the tall white building in the background, and another about 100 yards to the rear of where I was standing.  35 of these were not rebuilt after the Great Fire, and another 11 were not rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed by the Luftwaffe.

What is often forgotten, though, is how many churches were simply demolished between the Fire and the Blitz – 26 of them between 1782 and 1939, 19 of them Wren churches.  With a lack of sentiment we would now find astonishing, the Victorian C of E reasoned that by selling churches in the City, where the residential population was dwindling, they could afford to build new churches in the expanding suburbs.

J. Betjeman (who was a far from uncritical lover of Victoriana) commented –

“The serious medievalism of the mid-Victorians and the craze for surpliced choirs in stalls in the chancel, and for stained glass giving a dim religious light, made a double assault on the City churches from the 1850s onwards.  First Wren’s Classical style was regarded as pagan and this furnished an excuse for destroying so many of his churches.  Clumsy attempt were made to give the rest ‘Christian’ furnishings.”   

No doubt it would have seemed to the Victorian church that there were sound practical arguments for this orgy of demolition, but I must admit that I’m never sure that sound practical arguments are a good enough reason for destroying anything irreplacable.

(I should point out, incidentally, that I risked arrest to bring you this picture, as I was leaning against a police station when I took it.)

Too green? John Betjeman at St Pancras

I would just like to announce that this blog has now entered a new era, and has taken a further step along the road to becoming a true Multi-Media Experience.  I have managed to acquire a digital camera (by inheritance from my daughter) so readers had better brace themselves for a brief, Toad-like outbust of enthusiasm for photography.  It’s the only thing, you know, and, of course, so much less effort than actually writing something.  At present, I am roughly to the world of photography what Cyril Smith is to the modelling of skinny jeans, but perhaps I shall improve with practice.

Anyway, here is my first photograph –

John Betjeman at St Pancras

 This, as you will observe, is the much-lauded statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station.  My normal route out of the station doesn’t take me past this, but occasionally – when the elevators are broken – it does and my point is that every time I pass him he seems to get greener and greener.  I’m sure he didn’t look quite like this when the statue was new.

I believe this is because the statue is made of bronze, which is largely made of copper, which – as we know from looking at lightning conductors on the spires of churches – turns green when it oxidises – but quite how green is he going to get?  He did write –

“Little, alas, to you I mean

For I am old and bald and green.”

But surely not this green?

(Incidentally, this will have to count as my contribution to the celebration of St Patrick’s Day).


Have they not heard of Dura-glit?

Poetry quiz

Just thought I’d totter from my (metaphorical) sickbed to pose the following question (probably a rhetorical one) – who is the author of the following poem?  The mystery bard was quite a well-known figure in his or her own day, and, although not best-known as a poet, it was a well-known fact that they wrote the stuff.  The highlight of their career as a poet was to have been having John Betjeman reading one of their poems aloud on the telly, but that was cancelled due to an act of disobedience.  It’s not apparent at first sight, but there is a connection with the previous two poems.  It appears to be about going to the seaside in Sussex, which might offer another clue. 

City Pilgrim

You rattle down the track


like a ship down the slipway

toward the Sound and waiting freedom

to be known

in its circle of the world:

then leaving train at cluttered station

like ship leaves cluttered land

you make a way to your destination

of that verging golden strand

to stand on the edge of freshness

by the curling rolling waves

with arms outstretched to feel the space

that a city pilgrim craves.

 (It shows how addle-pated I am at the moment that I was just about to tag this post with the name of the poet …)

The Death of King George V

Thinking of the death of King George V (and who isn’t at this time of year?), it was, of course commemorated in verse by John Betjeman, like so –


“New King arrives in his capital by air” – Daily Newspaper


Spirit of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe

Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:

In that red house in a red mahogany book-case

The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.


The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing

And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;

Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking

Over thick carpets with a deadened force;


Old men who never cheated, never doubted,

Communicated monthly, sit and stare

At the new suburb stretched beyond the runway

Where a young man lands hatless from the air.


I always used to think that “communicated monthly” meant that the old men in country houses only spoke once a month, or perhaps wrote letters to each other monthly.  In fact, I believe, it means that they took communion once a month as opposed to taking it more frequently, which they would have seen as a Romish practice.

Now that the Christmas turkey has all gone, “well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe” do sound very tempting …

A woodcock

and its natural enemy, in his youth (dreaming of game) …

King George V

Arterial Road v. Cathedral Close : (Big Brother is – like – so over!)

Speaking of immensely popular television programmes which I’ve somehow managed to evade (which I think I was quite recently) I see that Big Brother is coming to an end.  This will, apparently, leave a large space in Channel 4’s schedules and no doubt they will be on the lookout for something to plug the hole (or, I suppose, more accurately, breach the dam) in their revenue stream.  An idea occurs to me.

Someone who made a very early pitch to a TV company for a reality-based format was John Betjeman. 

Mary Adams, a producer at the BBC, had written to JB –

I don’t know whether you have seen the televsion screen, or whether its problems interest you, but I should very much like you to come up to Alexandra Palace and discuss with us the possibilities of the new medium.”  

JB replied (in July 1937) –

I was interested by television.  But I feel, as I expect everyone you see feels and tells you, that these initial stages are a little boring [and not just the initial stages either – ed.].  The value of television seems to me to be its possibility of outside work … when it can actually drive down the Great Worst Road [presumably the Great North Road – ed.] picking up the noises, and then catch the silence of a cathedral close, it will awaken people to the repulsiveness of their surroundings.”

Just running this up the flagpole to see who salutes, but I’m seeing, in each week’s episode, a half hour’s real time footage of an arterial road, followed by a half hour of a cathedral close.  The winner to be decided by a phone-in vote.  The competition will proceed on a knock-out basis, culminating in a Grand Final, between – say – the North Circular and Salisbury Cathedral Close.  Imagine the tabloid hysteria this might generate!

To be branded – “Arterial Road v. Cathedral Close – you decide!”

I have Endemol on speed-dial, even as I type.



‘It doesn’t matter that there’s no one here. It doesn’t matter that they do not come. The villagers know the parson is praying for them in their church.’ –  John Betjeman, from A passion for churches.

Except that if no one comes the parson may well be praying for the villagers – but it won’t be in their church.  And so I come.

No good Christian would be impressed by this line of thinking.  Neither, even more certainly, would Richard Dawkins.