John Betjeman 1906-1984, Poet Laureate and architectural writer & campaigner
John Betjeman was born at 52 Parliament Hill Mansions in 1906, but moved away at the age of three when his family left for ‘a better address’ at 31 Highgate West Hill, where he is now commemorated by an English Heritage ‘blue plaque’.
John Betjeman’s father was a furniture designer and manufacturer, whose financial security was founded on his invention of ‘the tantalus’, a wooden drinks decanter holder that could be locked to keep them safe from children and thirsty servants!
In ‘The Little Book of Betjeman’, published with Betjeman Society support in the poet’s 2006 centenary year, the author Peter Grammond observes that “52 Parliament Hill Mansions hardly had the chance to contribute to his childhood imagination”. And yet…. in 1954, when John Betjeman looks back at his childhood on the fringes of Hampstead Heath, the ‘red cliffs’ of Parliament Hill Mansions arise from his earliest memories – together with his fearsome nursery maid – in a poem which, perhaps, helps explain the undercurrent of fear and unhappiness which runs beneath the apparently easy flow of John Betjeman’s verse, now loved by so many.
NW5 & N6
Red cliffs arise. And up them service lifts
Soar with groceries to silver heights.
Lissenden Mansions. And my memory sifts
Lilies from lily-like electric lights
And Irish stew smells from the smell of prams.
Out of it all my memory carves the quiet
Of that dark privet hedge where pleasures breed,
There first, intent upon its leafy diet,
I watched the looping caterpillar feed
And saw it hanging in a gummy froth
Till, weeks on, from the chrysalis burst the moth.
I see black oak twigs outlined on the sky,
Red squirrels on the Burdett-Coutts estate.
I ask my nurse the question “Will I die?”
As bells from sad St. Anne’s ring out so late
“And if I do die, will I go to Heaven?”
Highgate at eventide. Ninteen-eleven.
“You will. I won’t”. From that cheap nursery-maid,
Sadist and puritan as now I see,
I first learned what it was to be afraid,
Forcibly fed when sprawled across her knee
Lock’d into cupboards, left alone all day,
“World without end.” What fearsome words to pray.
“World without end.” It was not what she’d do
That frightened me so much as did her fear
And guilt at endlessness. I caught them too,
Hating to think of sphere succeeding sphere
Into eternity and God’s dread will
I caught her terror then. I have it still.
John Betjeman 1954