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John Betjeman (1906 - 1984)

Both of the following pieces are taken from 'Betjeman's London', edited by Pennie Denton and published by John Murray in 1988.

The first, titled 'Ah Middlesex', appeared in 'Punch' on 14 April 1954.

The second short piece is taken from 'Syon House' and was broadcast on the BBC Home Service in May 1952.

I hear in my mind's ear

and it is no fantasy, the Middlesex of forty years ago. I hear the clink of a smithy at Stanwell, the clap-to of a tollgate in Hampstead Lane, the creak of rowlocks at Shepperton, the jingle of harness in Hammersmith, the buzz of flies rising from shops in Chiswick High Road where goods lie open to the public way.

I hear the hiss and grind of a London United Electrical Tramcar, majestic in its cream and royal blue, through Twickenham. I hear the thud of a pair of carthorses and the creaking rumble of an enormous wagon passing down the rich flat market-garden land from Harmondsworth to West Drayton; in the air heights of Stanmore and along the oak-paled lanes of Enfield Chase glistening carriages go spaking round corners, and I hear them crunch over a gravelled drive which leads between conifers and proivate lamp-posts to some city merchant's red-brick mansion.

And here and there all over this still countrified county a row of grey brick houses, a coal merchant's, an estate agent's and a sweet-shop mark the road to a railway station, and I hear the puffing of a tank engine drawing its load of clerks into the fields from the prison of the city.

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In my mind's nose

I smell straw and stables and leather and saddle-soap and dried horse-dung and dried cow-dung, and then come waves of bean scent. And in spring that most prevalent of all Middlesex blossoms, the may, whitening uneven hedges, and here and there turning faintly pink, sends its scent as far into London as Kensington and Hornsey.

On the trams there is a smell of metal polish where brass has been rubbed up for the day; in the steam trains a smell of sulphur and dry upholstery. In the new-fangles electric trainns rattling out to recent red-brick development in Acton, Willesden and Neasden the more familiar smell of pipe-smoke and other people. And from a country inn, weather-boarded and with swinging sign, comes the rich smell of strong beer.

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In my mind's eye

I see dark cedars behind garden walls of brown and red, orange and gold, Middlesex brick, the most beautiful brick in England. I see wisteria climbing over a pale Georgian house-front and mulberries shadowing white wood gates. I see great elms on little hills, ducks floating on the cressy Brent, and more ducks on village pond and hens scratching the dusty road from Ruislip to Ickenham. I see a pair of wooden cottages for land workers and great timbered barns whose boards are tarred with black and whose roofs, like all Middlesex roofs, are warmly tiled in red.

Old Middlesex, the vegetable garden and dairy farm of London, where are you now? Where are the merchants' houses with their walled gardens, miniature landscaped parks, little lakes and carriage drives and bridges?

We went to see Brentford, Fougasse and I, which is now the capital of Middlesex, seeing that the upstart London has taken Westminster and many a delightful parish from the county. We went to what is left of Brentford, for a ruthless local council has destroyed much of its narrow High Street and jammed ill-proportioned , bogusly simple 'modern' buildings among the older houses. After the first asphyxiating minutes by the gasworks we still found bits of old Middlesex in Brentford.

Then we went northward to the Great Worst Road where it is bordered by what the planners call 'a sprinkling of light industry'. The hooting of neurotics in saloon cars, the bullying thunder of lorries, sirens summoning workers to canteens, the treacly swoop through walls of glass of 'Music While You Work' and, loud above the lot, the roar of aeroplanes assailed our ears.

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Petrol, diesel oil and antiseptic assailed our nostrils and from certain factories came the whiff of synthetic scent which makes one's thoughts fly, light as plastic, to saloons with 'clean modern lines', paper flowers sprouting from clean modern vases fixed to walls, unemptied ash-trays and everything washable.

And what chance strokes of some raw architectural student using a 2B pencil and remembering vaguely some Continental magazine of twenty years ago created this neo-Egyptian, neo-jazz world of factories? How many wires and poles and pipes must cross our delicate landscape to these hard-shaped buildings with their pseudo-simple angles and pathetic landscape gardens studded with snapdragons and floodloghts?

Warm air-conditioned world of beige and cream! Safe, labour-saving world of buff-tiled fireplaces, television sets and football pools! Hygienic world of community centres and culture, but not too much of it! There is no birth. There is no death. We will all go on for ever and ever getting better and better. Break in, O bells of Brentford, from your fifteenth century tower to remind us of the Truth.

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Syon House

Brentford is now the capital of Middlesex - Brentford 'For dirty streets and white-legged chickens famed' as the poet Gay decribed it in Queens Anne's time - and it is by Brentford that we approach Syon House from London.

First there is a fearful smell of gas, and then the long winding High Street of this ancient town. It has some Georgian shop fronts, many old Middlesex houses with their hipped roofs and uneven tiles, glimpses of the river between wharves and a tempting Georgian church which is always locked.

Brentford should paint its old houses and repair them. It is ashamed of itself and has no need to be for it has charming features under a dirty face, and I hope the 'progressive' planners will preserve it and not do the old reactionary thing of pulling it down.

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