A Passion For Places: England Through the Eyes of John Betjeman

Continuing our recently introduced feature of book reviews, OHCT Trustee Malcolm Airs reviews a fascinating new book by David Meara

David Meara will be familiar to many members of Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust. He is an active member of Council and organises many of our events. In his introduction to this delightful book, he tells us that his lifelong love not just for churches but also for railways and Victorian architecture was first kindled by John Betjeman and in the extended essay that follows he repays that debt with infectious enthusiasm. It is divided into five chapters that explore in roughly chronological order the various obsessions that punctuated Betjeman’s rich life starting with childhood and Cornwall and culminating with Metro-land and Norfolk by way of London, the railways and the Shell Guides. Each section is prefaced by a brief autobiographical reflection on Meara’s own journey through life and his response to his subject which provide a very personal dimension to the book.

Today Betjeman is revered as a much-loved poet and a great communicator who deeply influenced the way that we appreciate our buildings and landscapes. But for much of his life he was seen as an eccentric outsider. He struggled with the mystery of his religious faith and his personal insecurities led him into some bitter grudges against people he disagreed with, notably his Oxford tutor C.S Lewis and Nikolaus Pevsner. Meara offers us some perceptive insights into these elements of his character as well as a joyful celebration of all that he achieved. Betjeman himself once said, ‘if I have a mission in life, it is to show people things which are beautiful’ and this highly enjoyable essay ensures that we fully appreciate his success. It is generously illustrated with some exceptional colour photographs by Stuart Vallis which complement the carefully chosen images from various historic archives including those of his friends John Piper and Geoffrey Fletcher and Betjeman himself. The lengthy captions to the illustrations are particularly helpful.

As one might expect, churches and church crawling form the main theme throughout and there is a helpful appendix of Betjeman’s favourite churches ranging alphabetically from Bedfordshire to Yorkshire. Oxfordshire has three examples – Burford, Ewelme and St.Barnabas in Oxford. Surprisingly, he does not include the delightful eighteenth-century church of St.Katherine’s, Chislehampton, where Betjeman played an influential role in securing its restoration, although Meara makes amends by featuring a photograph of the inside of the church together with an extended caption.

At less than a hundred pages, the book does not seek to supersede Bevis Hillier’s massive three volume biography of Betjeman published between 1988 and 2004, but, in the words of its subject, it certainly ‘crackles with interest and excitement’. It is highly recommended to all who enjoy a passion for places.

A Passion For Places: England Through the Eyes of John Betjeman, David Meara
(Amberley Publishing, Stroud, 2021), ISBN 978 1 4456 8710 0, 96 pages, numerous colour and B &W illustrations.