Thursday, 21 July 2011

Betjeman and a love for Leek

John Betjeman liked this area and for a period of around ten years made frequent trips to North Staffordshire. He came to Leek often. The minute book of the Arts Club mentions three visits in 1953, 1958 and finally in April 1960. That visit made the front page of the Leek Post and Times.

He is pictured with the officers of the club wearing a trademark hat and beaming at the camera. That visit on the 4th April 1960 is not recorded perhaps it was a courtesy visit. There is no report of a meeting or an address to the club. He liked the town and in a letter to the recently appointed Principal of Keele University, George Barnes written in September 1956 states that "Leek is quite the best town anywhere and the Norman Shaw Church with Lethaby fittings and Hamilton Jackson paintings is finer than its counterpart at Ilkley".

He liked the people of the area as well. Several months earlier when he congratulated Barnes on obtaining his post at Keele he commended the area by saying" I love Stoke on Trent and people of the Trent valley are the nicest in England and the toofer, the naicer".

There were a number of reasons that he was drawn to this area during this decade. He had a friend who lived in Leek DB (Charles) Peace who was the chief planning officer for the County Council who introduced many of the buildings and landscape of the Moorlands to Betjeman. He was very friendly to Peace’s wife and tried to help her literary career. In March 1956 he wrote to Longman’s publisher pressing the case for the publication of a journal that she had written about Leek during the 1950s describing it as a "wonderful record of what life in a provincial town is like. A sort of modern Flora Thompson". Longman’s declined to publish Mrs JM Peace’s work on Leek during this period. I wonder what happened to it? Do any readers know? Betjeman reveals his High Anglicanism distaste and possible snobbery for nonconformity in the letter, "this was the first work by an articulate Congregationalist that I had heard".

He husband was an enthusiast for Staffordshire Churches and wrote the introduction to the county in Collins Guide to the English Parish Church published in 1958 with illustrations by John Piper. I have a battered, well-thumbed copy bought in a second hand bookshop in Stratford on Avon in the 90s. The concluding remarks by Peace in the introduction are apposite and to the point.
"In landscape and architecture Staffordshire is a good average with numerous high spots. There is quite remote country especially in the centre and the north; there is much industrialised building in parts and both in the towns and the countryside there are many churches which deserved to be loved more widely".

They are listed in Betjeman’s book sometimes with gnomic descriptions. Alstonfield "pleasant setting with box pews, Checkley" the best medieval church in North Staffordshire", Cheddleton with its Burne Jones glass and Rushton" a church of rare interest and individuality and Grindon a three word entry "spire, massings, setting". The longest entry however is for All Saints in Leek " a nice contrast between the intimate scale and great arches" and a special mention for the " splendid green marble font"

Another reason for visiting the area was Betjeman’s long-term friendship with George Barnes, which dated back to 1930 when Barnes was Head of the Talks Department at the BBC. Barnes would later become head of the Third Programme and used Betjeman frequently in programmes on heritage and architecture. He discerned in Betjeman a great ability to communicate with a showman’s ability to describe to the public some of the architectural and landscapes on offer in Britain. Barnes played a pivotal role in introducing Betjeman to the British public initially through the radio and as the 50s progressed on the new medium of radio. In 1956 Barnes was appointed to senior academic role at Keele and the poet was a frequent visitor praising the local towns both in the Potteries and beyond. Betjeman passed on the love of church crawling to Barnes’s son Anthony who in later life became the Director of the Redundant Churches Trust. Later Betjeman was regularly visiting an ailing Barnes and in the words of Betjeman’s biographer AN Wilson, whose book was published in 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth, thought the letters written to Barnes the most impressive things that he wrote

To Barnes by this time dying of cancer he wrote in August 1960

" Like you, I’ve spent my life avoiding pain, mental and particularly physical. I know enough however to know how awful pain is, I sometimes think that it is the only thing to reconcile me to dying- to get out of pain…I cannot see that pain serves any purpose except to give one joy and thankfulness for not having it".

It was a very appealing side of his character that he was very supportive of friends as well as the anonymous hospital visiting that he carried out meeting and offering support to strangers on regular unpublicised visits to St Bart’s in London

North Staffordshire was very close to Chatsworth House and therein is another reason. Betjeman met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish in memorable circumstances. They met at a dinner party held on the 29th May 1951. The event was auspicious for students of espionage as another of the guests of that night Guy Burgess had fled a few days earlier to Moscow and another guest that evening Anthony Blunt was expected to be arrested at the party by MI5. Elizabeth Cavendish was the daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. She was a sister in law of Kitty Kennedy and friend of her brother JFK. At the party Betjeman fell in love with Elizabeth Cavendish and the feeling was reciprocated. It was a relationship that lasted up to his death in 1984. He had been married for many years to Penelope it was an unhappy relationship. He spent a great deal of time at Elizabeth’s cottage on the Chatsworth estate passing his time " in rest and quietness" in contrast with the rows at his married home in Berkshire. Early in the relationship he wrote a poem "In Willesden churchyard" which describes the illicit affair that the Victorian writer Charles Reade had he uses the poem in an attempt to dissuade the curious.

 AN Wilson records the morbid modern fixation that people have about the private lives of others is illustrated

" Did Laura gently stroke her lover’s head?
And did her Charles look into her eyes
For loyal counsel there? I do not know
Doubtless some pedant for his PhD
Has ascertained the facts".

He was also a regular visitor to Chatsworth from this time onwards so much so that there was a bust of Betjeman placed at the stately home.

Above all, he liked to gad around Britain and from his letters edited by his daughter and the monumental biography written by his literary executor Bevis Hillier he spent a great deal of time during the 50s and early 60s on the move and involved in campaigns to save the towns and cities of the country from the excesses of architects and planners. In 1957 he founded the Victorian society, a period of building and design, which at the time was deeply unfashionable.

In 1960 he supported the doomed campaign to save the Euston Arch. I am sure that older readers will recall the arch outside the station. I first went to London in 1961 and alas to young to be aware of this splendid piece of Victoriana. Locally and later on his support was enlisted in the successful campaign to preserve Cheddleton Railway station reputedly designed by Pugin the celebrated Victorian architect. And probably there is another reason why Betjeman came to Leek frequently and explains why there are few records after 1960. Betjeman was an enthusiast for the railways for steam and for branch lines. And of course Leek’s Railway station closed in 1960 the year that Sir John is seen being welcomed on the front page of the local paper.

At the end of AN Wilson’s book the Duchess of Devonshire uses the phrase " blinding charm" about him. I can see that charm deployed to staff and people that he met in Leek as he got off the railway station with his slouched shoulders, his old coat, his battered hat and that beaming smile.