A Poet in London Monitor


A Poet in London

First transmitted in 1959, John Betjeman is filmed at different London locations introducing and reciting four of his poems.


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BBC Four Collections -

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specially chosen programmes from the BBC archive.

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Most of my verse is about London and Cornwall.

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Here in the traffic roar of the city of London,

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I've written quite a lot of verses

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because this part is associated with my childhood.

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I can remember when, where we are now, was the Manchester Hotel.

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And where this bracken and rosebay grows, once,

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down in the passages which are tiled, you can still see the tiles,

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once people hurried along with trays of tea.

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And now, all that remains is this

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and the bombed ruins there,

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of Aldersgate Street station.

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Long after the amalgamation of all the independent railways...

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..Aldersgate Street station in the city of London remained

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a memorial of unwilling cooperation.

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On one side of the station, to this day,

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steam trains come in early in the morning from the suburbs

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and go out in the afternoon to the suburbs.

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And on the other side, electric trains are constantly and efficiently

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whirring to Hammersmith and round on the Inner Circle.

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And that huge station had, up at the top as you went out,

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a refreshment room, which I can remember before the war.

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It had plate-glass windows, and on the plate-glass windows

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in China letters were the words "Afternoon teas a speciality".

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A very nice place to have tea. And then...

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..last year, or maybe the year before,

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they took the enormous cast-iron roof off the station

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and that took away a lot of its personality

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and a lot of the feeling of the old city people who used to use it

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when people wore silk hats

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and travelled in a very respectable manner in non-smoking carriages.

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This is a monody on the death of Aldersgate Street station.

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Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate station

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Soot hangs in the tunnel in clouds of steam

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City of London

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Before the next desecration,

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let your steepled forest of churches be my theme.

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Sunday silence, with every street a dead street

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Alley and courtyard empty and cobbled mews

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Till "tingle tang", the bell of St Mildred's, Bread Street

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Summoned the sermon taster to high box pews

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And neighbouring towers and spirelets joined the ringing

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With answering echoes from heavy commercial walls

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Till all were drowned as the sailing clouds went singing

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On the roaring flood of a 12-voiced peal from Paul's.

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Then would the years fall off and Thames run slowly

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Out into marshy meadowland flowed the fleet

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And the walled-in City of London, smelly and holy

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Had a tinkling mass house in every cavernous street.

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The bells rang down and St Michael Paternoster

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Would take me into its darkness from College Hill.

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Or Christ Church Newgate Street (with St Leonard Foster)

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Would be late for Matins and ringing insistence still.

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Last of the east wall sculpture a cherub gazes

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On broken arches of rosebay, bracken and dock

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Where once I heard the roll of the Prayer Book phrases

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And the sumptuous tick of the old west gallery clock.

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Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate station.

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Toiling and doomed from Moorgate Street puffs the train

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For us of the steam and gas-light, the lost generation

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The new white cliffs of the City are built in vain.

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What people don't realise, who build these big blocks in the City,

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these huge new white cliffs, is what an awful time

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the people who have to work in them have in getting to them.

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The struggle, for instance,

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that business girls, young business girls, fresh from home,

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have to go through in order to reach these cliffs.

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I'm always touched by the sight

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of people struggling to get to these places

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and they live very often in furnished rooms in large houses,

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originally built for large families

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and now turned into flats.

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You can see them all over London,

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particularly in the inner, steam railway sort of suburb.

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And this poem, I wrote about business girls in Camden Town.

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From the geyser ventilators

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Autumn winds are blowing down on a thousand business women

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Having baths in Camden Town

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Waste pipes chuckle into runnels

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Steam's escaping here and there

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Morning trains through Camden cutting

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Shape the Crescent and the Square.

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Early nip of changeful autumn

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Dahlias glimpsed through garden doors

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At the back, precarious bathrooms

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Jutting out from upper floors

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And behind their frail partitions

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Business women lie and soak,

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Seeing through the draughty skylight

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Flying clouds and railway smoke.

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Rest you there, poor, unbeloved ones

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Lap your loneliness in heat.

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All too soon the tiny breakfast

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Trolley-bus and windy street.

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Unfortunately, I can't keep sex out of my poems.

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It would be hypocritical for me to do so.

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Everywhere you go in London in public transport,

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you can't get away from the beauty of the girls.

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The sort of girl I like to see

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Smiles down from her great height at me.

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She stands in strong, athletic pose

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And wrinkles her retrousse nose.

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Is it distaste that makes her frown

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So furious and freckled, down

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On an unhealthy worm like me?

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Or am I what she likes to see?

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I do not know, though much I care,

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Eithe genoimen, would I were

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(Forgive me, shade of Rupert Brooke)

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An object fit to claim her look.

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Oh! would I were her racket press'd

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With hard excitement to her breast

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And swished into the sunlit air

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Arm-high above her tousled hair,

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And banged against the bounding ball

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"Oh! Plung!" my tauten'd strings would call,

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"Oh! Plung my darling, break my strings

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"For you I will do brilliant things."

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And when the match is over, I

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Would flop beside you, hear you sigh;

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And then with what supreme caress,

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You'd tuck me up into my press.

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Fair tigress of the tennis courts,

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So short in sleeve and strong in shorts,

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Little, alas, to you I mean,

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For I am bald and old and green.

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CHILDREN SHOUT PLAYFULLY

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Finally, some of my verses are connected with childhood

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and memories of it which we all share in common.

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My own childhood wasn't quite so successful

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as that of those beautiful tennis-playing girls

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we've just seen.

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And the other day I went back to Hertfordshire

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and my verse is always about places

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and in Hertfordshire, I recollected painful times

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when I went wrong, shooting with my father

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and that brought forth these verses.

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I had forgotten Hertfordshire,

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The large unwelcome fields of roots

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Where with my knickerbockered sire

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I trudged in syndicated shoots;

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And that unlucky day when I

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Fired by mistake into the ground

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Under a Lionel Edwards sky

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And felt disapprobation round.

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The slow drive home by motor-car,

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A heavy Rover Landaulette,

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Through Welwyn, Hatfield, Potters Bar,

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Tweed and cigar smoke, gloom and wet:

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And now I see these fields once more

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Clothed, thank the Lord, in summer green,

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Pale corn waves rippling to a shore

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The shadowy cliffs of elm between,

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Colour-washed cottages reed-thatched,

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and weather-boarded water mills.

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Flint churches, brick and plaster patched,

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On mildly undistinguished hills -

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They still are there. But now the shire

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Suffers a devastating change,

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Its general landscape strung with wire,

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Old places looking ill and strange.

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One can't be sure where London ends,

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New towns have filled the fields of root

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Where father and his business friends

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Drove in the Landaulette to shoot;

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Tall concrete standards line the lane,

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Brick boxes glitter in the sun:

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Far more would these have caused him pain

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Than my mishandling of a gun.

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First transmitted in 1959, John Betjeman is filmed at different London locations introducing and reciting four of his poems.

The film was Ken Russell's first for television and was commissioned by Huw Wheldon, the head of the BBC's Monitor arts programme. Betjeman is shown visiting locations including Vauxhall Park, Aldersgate Street station (now the Barbican), Camden Town and Hatfield. He recites his poems 'Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station', 'Business Girls', 'The Olympic Girl' and 'Hertfordshire'.