John Betjeman’s little bit of Dalston goes on show

© John Betjeman by permission of The Estate of John Betjeman

JOHN BETJEMAN was one of our most popular poets. He was also an enthusiast for good architecture and tried to protect what remained of fine Victorian and Edwardian buildings in Britain. He helped to save St Pancras station.

Somehow this middle-class hero landed at Dalston Junction station in the early 1970s but sadly the Poet Laureate was unable to save the great Victorian theatre. That was allowed to be demolished in 2006 — Betjeman, born in 1906, died in 1984.

He did, however, do a modest sketch, above, with self-portraits, of the Victorian station in Dalston Lane, subsequently closed, in 1986, and reopened in 2011. The drawings are on show in Writing Britain, a lively exhibition at the British Library in Euston Road, King’s Cross. The library told Loving Dalston: “Betjeman was a keen recorder and defender of hidden transport glories around London, sketching many of them in his notebooks.”

More than 150 literary works, including loans from abroad, are on show. As well as manuscripts and printed editions, the display features sound and video recordings, letters, photographs, maps and song lyrics drawings, among them John Lennon’s scribbled draft for In My Life.

The manuscripts of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, William Blake’s London and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can also be seen, although, of course, not touched.

If you’re trying to place Betjeman, Slough may come to mind. He inadvertently fixed a wretched image for the west of London town when a poem he wrote in 1937 ran:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now

Hardly Keats, is it, and critics were a little snobbish about his poems, perhaps because of his national popularity.

In old age he issued a strong warning to young people. A TV interviewer asked: “Do you have any regrets?” and he replied: “Yes, I wish I’d had more sex.”

Any sympathy for the supposedly sexually deprived epitome of Middle Englishness evaporated when letters to a lover (there was more than one) emerged a few weeks ago. They will not be on show at the BL.

* Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderland is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, until Tues 25 Sep 2012, £5-£9 (under-18s, disabled people and their carers free). See website for hours.

* Emboldened words usually indicate hyperlinks.

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