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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

John Betjeman and Lyme Regis

Sir John Betjeman (1906 - 1984) is famous both as a poet and as a defender of Britain's Victorian heritage. He came to Lyme Regis when he was doing research for his Guide to English Parish Churches, in which he describes the town as "An attractive little seaside resort on the borders of Devon with many late 18th and early 19th century houses and a few earlier survivals". But Betjeman visited the town on other occasions as well. The Observer newspaper, when reviewing a biography of Betjeman and wishing to make the point that the book went into unnecessarily tedious detail, said "Who cares where he stopped for a drink one bank holiday driving to Lyme Regis?"

On display in Lyme Regis Museum is the letter shown on the left, which Betjeman wrote in 1954 criticizing the Town Council for putting up concrete lamp-posts (click on the letter to read it -- you'll notice that the future Poet Laureate's typewriter had a distinctly wonky "n"!). In the letter, Betjeman says that Lyme "is just the sort of town that could not stand them [concrete lamp standards], since the skyline is so important there and the streets are so narrow". One wonders what he would have made of the town's new "ammonite-shaped" lamp-posts -- Mary Godwin, the Museum curator, suggests he wouldn't have liked them at all due to their novelty element!

There is another interesting, if tenuous, connection between Betjeman and Lyme. One of his most famous poems is A Subaltern's Love-Song, concerning a Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. The poem was set to music by Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann) and included on his 1965 EP record For The Love of Betjeman. In his autobiography Swann's Way, the composer explained how Lyme played a role in his choice of this particular poem: "With Joan Hunter Dunn, the urge to set this to music came after meeting a girl momentarily at a ball in Lyme Regis. This was my first sight of the English Rose, and I was very stirred by her. At that time England was still new to me after Palestine and Greece. This girl encapsulated the beautiful countryside, and all the English places I had visited since my return, into a very romantic picture. John Betjeman also felt this: apparently he was working in the Ministry of Information and saw a wonderful girl going down a corridor and said: 'I bet she's a doctor's daughter from Camberley'. She was, and her name was Joan Hunter Dunn."

[Thanks to Mary Godwin for scanning the letter and providing the quote from Swann's Way.]

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