“Oh yes she/he is one of my Heroines/Heros”. I made a list of mine the other day (Lockdown allows you to do these sorts of things). Mine sort of sit in the fantasy dinner party thing, people that you would like to sit around your table and hold sparkling conversation and make the evening go well without you having to try too hard as host.
All the usual suspects are there, but it made me look a who really was a hero and not just someone who has celebrity status. It was a toss up between two people, and after several hours of cogitation I finally came up with a winner.
My hero is John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, writer, broadcaster, snob and randy old goat.
I first found JB through his poetry. While at school I didn’t have the capacity to understand or appreciate Petrarchan verse or Shakespeare’s love sonnets, but the simplicity and naivety of his poems was something I could grasp. It spoke of my Grandparents time, an era I have always been interested in. From discovering him at the age of fourteen until now, I have read, re-read and re-re-read his not so massive body of work. So what makes him a hero? Well its nothing to do with his poetry really.
JB was a visionary, and the vision he saw was a disturbing one. London after the Second World War was a decimated city due to the German Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign. Large areas were no more than rubble, and were destined to be so for many years following the end of hostilities.
The city definitely needed rebuilding and the feeling of those who held sway within the architectural arguments seemed to have an “Out with the old and in with the new” attitude” So many architectural and historical gems were earmarked for demolition, and nobody seemed to speak out against this. Betjeman, however saw that this wholesale change would rob the capital of important buildings which needed to be saved. His vision was of a city where the shock of the new sat comfortably with the historic fabric of the city.
JB had a fondness for Victorian architecture at a time when it was unfashionable and was a founding member of the Victorian Society. He wrote on this subject in First and Last Loves (1952). He campaigned tirelessly to save many buildings from demolition, some successfully and some not. He fought a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to save the Propylaeum, known commonly as the Euston Arch. The arch had been built in 1837 as the entrance to Euston railway station, but when the station was being remodelled in the 1960s it succumbed to the wrecking ball despite vehement opposition spearheaded by JB.
Anyone who is familiar with the Euston station area would probably tell you how bland and soulless it is, there’s not even a remotely funky 60s vibe about it. Euston station is currently undergoing renovation and modernisation for the arrival of HS2 and I have read on a couple of occasions of tentative plans to rebuild the arch outside the station concourse. Why! There was a perfectly good one there sixty years ago, something with history and presence, something that could have linked the old and the new. If we’re not careful our city planners will turn it into a heritage experience/theme park.
This link between the old and the new is probably best seen in what was probably JB’s finest victory. Along with others, he fought to save the wonderfull St Pancras railway station from obliteration. In the late 1960s, consideration was given to diverting services from St Pancras to King’s Cross and Euston, but there was fierce opposition to its proposed closure and demolition of the station and hotel. Now it is the crowning glory in the regeneration of the area.
JB’s contribution to saving the building is commemorated in a statue that stands on the upper concourse of the station. Sartorially elegant as always he gazes up shopping bag in hand to admire the construction of the new station roof, a fitting tribute to his vision of the old and the new.