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Rhyme and Reason

Sir John Betjeman


IT'S 30 years since the death of Sir John Betjeman, poet and diplomat. Betjeman (inset) was a big hit when he came to Dublin during World War Two as press attache with the British embassy. He was a raving success.

Although a public school and Oxford man, he spoke with a slight Cockney accent. Twinkling eyes and an acute sense of humour got him past most Gaelic roadblocks.

He was not only a spy but someone playing a spy role, who cheerfully hinted wherever he went that he was on the payroll of MI5. This stunt appealed to the Irish.

Portmarnock Golf Club was his playground and was alive with tales of Betjers' pranks. His golf was just good enough to make him a subject for jokes. I knew him through a friend of mine, the Earl of Wicklow.

Betjers was great fun but, often, I couldn't quite catch what he was saying with his Cockney-tinged accent.

He became so popular that he fell in love with the Irish and took our side in the English debate, maybe even playing a real role in keeping us out of the war.

When I met him later, he had become Sir John Betjeman. A cult had grown up around him in London and he was the idol of the young Turks, as one of the last survivors of the group of characters in Evelyn Waugh's book, Brideshead Revisited.

His last books contained verse about Ireland, a country he never forgot. He had adored his years here as a mock spy. "Oi do love Ireland," he used to say, dreamily, as he raised his glass.

Here is a late poem of his, anticipating the carnage on the motorways fuelled by the unrestricted anger of the new race.