chapter  5
19 Pages

John Betjeman

The ‘much loved’ twentieth-century poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) was a product of Marlborough College and the University of Oxford. In each of these august institutions of learning he was exposed to the sports boom that, by the 1920s, was well into its stride. However, Betjeman was a self-confessed idler, in both sports and studies. Far from being a healthy athlete Betjeman, in one of his poems, called himself ‘an unhealthy worm’.2 He was described as possessing a sense of ‘physical inferiority’.3 At school, as autumn terms approached there stretched before him ‘weeks and weeks of games of football in cold fields, and no hot water left when you return to the changing room, and at these games you must appear keen for the honour of the house’.4 He could not box and ‘greatly dreaded pain’5 – a sensory experience found in almost all serious sports and a widespread reason for disliking them. Sports are cultural events in which pain is a central feature, almost an essence of the kinds of sports (boxing and rugby in particular) that Betjeman would have encountered but (often successfully) tried to avoid at school. At Oxford, sports were still as important as, if not more important than, they had been in Dodgson’s day, but for Betjeman games ‘were neither here nor there’.6 Yet as I shall show, several sports feature in many of the poems in his prolific output. His negative attitudes to them are both implicit and explicit in his broader corpus of writing.