The poet of the provinces

John Betjeman is often thought of as a bit of a fogey, but

his work was piercingly prescient. And

It was in the sixth form of Nunthorpe Grammar School, York, that I first became properly aware of John Betjeman, whose centenary is being celebrated. Our English teacher, Mr "Charlie" George, was talking us through The Go-Between by P Hartley. At the start of the novel, young Leo is tormented at school by two lads called Jenkins and Strode. "Very good names for bullies," noted Charlie George, who then broke off to mention that, in his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, Betjeman mentions being tormented by an even more aggressive-sounding pair: Robson and Ibbotson. "Betjeman's great, lads," said Charlie, by way of aside. "Don't let the snobs tell you different."

I read the passage in which the pair ambush the young Betjeman, and was very uncomfortably reminded of my own days of being bullied. Another, closely adjacent, passage was equally striking. The boy Betjeman is invited by a little girl called Julia to a smart party. He is very proud of being the last to leave, but as he departs he overhears the hostess's mother inquire: "I wonder where Julia found that strange, rather common little boy?" As a class-conscious physical coward, I was already beginning to identify with the man.

I then bought a record called Banana Blush, on which he read some of his poems over music. I loved it, but kept it to the rear of my record stack (Shaved Fish by John Lennon was always proudly displayed at the fore), fearing that Betjeman was somehow not "cool". The other day, 30 years too late, I read that this record has a street-credible champion in Morrissey, who apparently plays the most maudlin track from it, "A Child Ill", before his concerts. This doesn't surprise me. In one of Morrissey's best songs, "Every Day is Like Sunday", about a boring seaside town, the salivating plea "Come, come, come - nuclear bomb" echoes Betjeman's "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough . . ."

Together with Philip Larkin, Morrissey goes on to my list of people willing to forgive the fact that Betjeman's poetry was comprehensible, and to perceive its strangeness and frequently morbid power. One of the reasons I began to write a series of novels set on the railways is his line from "Parliament Hill Fields": "Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go." (I don't quite know why . . . something to do with the autonomy of rail-borne vehicles.) And when Betjeman wrote about death, I was always very nastily checked: "Do you know that the stucco is peeling?/Do you know that the heart will stop?"

Yes, he was the nation's teddy bear, pottering and - as the Parkinson's took hold - increasingly tottering in and out of interesting-looking churches and railway stations, but his persona was a complicated, multilayered bluff. Watch him on television (a DVD of his documentary Metroland is available). Here is a complicated character - profoundly ironic, all strange, flirtatious sidelong glances and languorous comic timing. As a television audience, we are no longer intelligent enough for the mutability of a Betjeman.

I remember seeing him interviewed towards the end of his life. He sat on a clifftop in a wheelchair. "What are your regrets?" he was asked. "I haven't had enough sex," he replied, with great trenchancy. Another of his regrets was not being "taken seriously by the TLS", except that this was a mock-regret, which has become a comfort to me, the author of five novels, only two of which have been noticed on its pages (and one of those was in the "In Brief" section).

A regret of my own is that I never met him, but a friend of mine did. The encounter happened, paradigmatically enough, at Didcot Station, where Betjeman was public-spiritedly slamming a few carriage doors to enable a train to pull away. "Do you work here, Mr Betjeman?" asked my friend. "Oh, what a lovely idea!" he said.

I've learnt a lot from him, even so. Don't be part of a literary gang; be yourself. Write about your genuine interests rather than what the papers are full of. Express in your writing a sense of place - it gives latency and mystery to dialogue, psychology and characterisation.

My main journalistic interests also coincided with three of Betjeman's: provincial England, trains and class. I used to write a column about trains, and the items that drew the most letters were about subjects to which Betjeman had drawn my attention in his own works: the anomalous, briefly open and long-closed South Kentish Town Tube Station, for example, which was cursed by being too close to the more famous Kentish Town Tube Station. In this magazine, I wrote about class. I wrote at "the back of the book" and, like Betjeman in the Spectator, I "never read the political stuff at the front". Here, too, Betjeman was my guiding light. This was a man, after all, who spent much of his life wondering whether it was smarter to pronounce Holborn as "Hoban", "Holeborn" or "Hollbun".

Betjeman is usually thought of as a fogey mired in retrospection, but he was piercingly prescient. In 1944, he was complaining of the lack of "individual identity" in English towns. In the early 1950s, he was complaining that the railways were being run entirely for profit rather than as a public service. In 1963, he observed that our railway stations were beginning to look like "cold public lavatories", and noted the continuous roar of aeroplanes over London. He wrote throughout his life of the blight of the automobile.

John Betjeman died in 1984, and it was probably just as well.

Andrew Martin's latest novel is "The Lost Luggage Porter" (Faber & Faber)

Betjeman on poetry

"It starts as inspiration and ends as a crossword puzzle."

"One knows poetry can't be written to order. One waits for something to come through from The Management upstairs and The Management can be very capricious." (Betjeman's response to a lukewarm reception for his poem commemorating Princess Anne's wedding in 1973)

Betjeman as viewed by others

"He is a subtle poet but not a sophisticated one." (Philip Larkin)

"I wish I could get rid of the idle prig." (From the diary of C S Lewis, who taught Betjeman at Oxford)

Biographical details

1906 Born, the only son of a manufacturer

1916 Is taught by T S Eliot while attending Highgate School 1925 Reads (and fails to pass) English Literature at Oxford

1931 Publishes first book of poems, Mount Zion

1958 Collected Poems is published, and sells more than 100,000 copies

1969 Knighted

1972 Succeeds Cecil Day-Lewis as poet laureate

1984 Dies in Trebetherick, suffering from Parkinson's