FROM Betjeman’s first visit to the Isle of Man in the 1930s to his last message of support to the Mananan Festival the year before his death in 1984, a new booklet provides a detailed history of the late Poet Laureate’s relationship with the island he adored.
The booklet has been published by the island’s Betjeman Society, based at the Erin Arts Centre in Port Erin.
Betjeman was patron of the Mananan International Festival and president of the Erin Arts Centre. A plaque commemorates his re-opening of the Erin Arts Centre in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.
Fittingly the new booklet, entitled ‘Betjemanx’, includes a foreword by Prince Charles who speaks of the late Poet Laureate’s ‘great affection for [the island’s] stunning scenery, its Victorian architecture and its steam and electric railway systems’.
Betjemanx, which takes its name from a Manx-inspired pseudonym the poet used in some of his correspondence, has been compiled by John R Bowring, retired Douglas borough librarian and archivist for the island branch of the Betjeman Society.
The author tells how JB was first encouraged to visit the Isle of Man by fellow poet WH Auden, who was a contemporary at Oxford University.
Betjeman’s first view of the island came quite by accident, however. He was being flown to Ireland in a private plane to visit one of his aristocratic friends when it was forced to divert in thick fog and landed in a field near Ballaugh.
JB’s first mention of a visit to the island came in a West of England radio programme of 1938 entitled Visitors where he spoke of having stayed ‘in a little bee farm in a lonely part of the Isle of Man’.
A later visit was the subject of a BBC Third Programme broadcast in 1949 which contrasts the excitement of the dance halls of Douglas with the sun setting as the herring fleet sets out from Peel.
Betjemanx recalls a visit by JB to the Baillie Scott-designed interior of Glencrutchery House in Douglas when the late Manx journalist Eunice Salmond remarked on the similarity of the drawing room to the one portrayed in My Fair Lady.
‘Clever girl’, replied Betjeman. ‘I loaned my book on Baillie Scott to Cecil Beaton when he was designing the sets for My Fair Lady’.
In a column written for the Spectator, JB joked about offering his services as Lieutenant Governor.
During the 1970s, he made a series of visits to the island. In 1970 he made the TV film Look Stranger: Ellan Vannin which was screened on BBC in December that year. The following year he was invited as guest to the Tynwald Day ceremony and in 1976 he gave recitals at the second annual Mananan Festival.
In 1977, he returned to the island, despite visibly suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, to reopen the Erin Arts Centre which had undergone a major refurbishment. He also read from his poetry collection at a Music by Candlelight evening held at St Mark’s, Malew. No one knew it at the time, but this was to be his last visit.
He continued to write messages of support to the Mananan Festival, his last one to director John Bethell coming in 1983, when he wrote: ‘Mananan’s rough coastline delights me still more. I long to hear sea sound and to be with you for your festival.’
Sadly, it was not to be and JB passed away at Trebetherick in Cornwall the following year.
l Betjemanx is available, price £5 (£6 including postage and packing), from Joyce Corlett, secretary and treasurer of the Isle of Man branch of the Betjeman Society at Brayside, Ballafurt Road, Port Erin, or call 833197 .