Betjeman and C S Lewis

Oxford Today recently arrived on my doormat. This is a magazine sent (as far as I know) to graduates of the University. The news content is limited but useful, giving notice, for example, of the revamp of the Ashmolean Museum, and a page explaining some of the more recent findings by Oxford scientists.

The rest of the magazine is devoted to a collection of first-rate articles related in one way or another to Oxford life. The latest issue has a fascinating piece on John Betjeman “The dilettante and the dons” by Judith Priestman, a specialist in 20th century literature who works on Western manuscripts at the Bodleian Library.

Frankly, I am not terribly fascinated by the dilettante bit. Betjeman was one of those teddy-bear carrying high Anglicans who went about in a silk dressing-gown, ate plovers’ eggs and corresponded with Oscar Wilde's lover. The attraction of the article is the description of his encounter with C S Lewis who was his tutor in English.

After a term as an undergraduate, Lewis had been sent to Arras where he was wounded. After the war, he returned to Oxford, took a first in Greats and then a degree in English. He was not sympathetic to the effete set of the twenties who had not endured the horrors of the trenches. Priestman describes Lewis’s style of entertainment during this period of his life before he became a Christian. It involved beer and tobacco and the recitation of Norse sagas. She comments:
His teaching style was pugnacious, and with his tweed jacket, pipe and aggressively unpoetic vocabulary (excellence was indicated by a laconic ‘all right’; defaulters were said to need ‘a smack or so’ to get them into line), Jolly Jack Lewis appeared to be the embodiment of everything that was hearty and antithetical to the fey, Anglo-Catholic aesthete Betjeman
On one of the rare occasions when Betjeman did turn up to a tutorial, he was wearing ‘eccentric bedroom slippers’. Lewis recorded in his diary:
[he] said he hoped I didn’t mind them as he had a blister. He seemed so pleased with himself that I couldn’t help replying that I should mind them very much myself but that I had no objection to his wearing them.
Lewis told Betjeman that he would have got a Third but in fact he ended his undergraduate days by obtaining a “pass” degree without honours. His enmity for C S Lewis was bitter and lasting. In a very different age, the University rehabilitated him by awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1974.

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