The sad death of our Chairman, Lance was made all the more difficult by the speed with which his cancer spread and the short space of time between diagnosis and his passing at home in October. Those of us who saw him at Bevis Hillier’s much delayed Birthday Party in August were appalled at how ill he had suddenly become yet he bravely read ‘Devonshire Street W1’ at the JB Statue on St Pancras, made all the more poignant since he must have been acutely aware of the message contained in that poem. We can reflect on the unfairness and manner of his departing, but Lance would not have wanted to be remembered for this and nor should we.Instead we can celebrate what he achieved for the Betjeman Society, The Gerard Manley Hopkins Society and for English literature in general. He also had many other achievements too, that we were not fully aware of and I was pleased to be sent the following obituary by member John Dearing, from The Church of England Newsletter of November 2021, which provided more insight into the man and his many abilities.

“‘Lance Pierson (1947 – 2021) was an actor and professional poetry performer. He died at home in Fulham on 14 October 2021 at the age of 74. In July he was diagnosed with cancer which developed very quickly. He was the National Chairman of the John Betjeman Society. He ran workshops to improve bible reading in church and could be heard regularly on Premier Christian Radio reading Living Light Reflections. Lance was born on 9 January 1947 and grew up in Highgate, North London. He was the only son of Catherine Salkeld, an actress who was born in 1909 in Edinburgh. His father, a Roman Catholic, had been a captain in the army, but they divorced in 1948.

Lance went to Eton and from there to New College Oxford to read English and Theology. The preacher at the thanksgiving service for his life, held at his home church of St Matthew’s Fulham on 18 November, and attended by over 200 people from all around the country, was Canon Andrew Cornes, whom Lance had prayed for daily and led to Christ at Oxford. Canon Cornes recalled that lance became a Christian because of cricket, a game he loved, as well as steam trains and cycling. He had heard David Sheppard on Desert Island Discs speak of how he found Jesus Christ as a Cambridge undergraduate and he was intrigued. On his first Sunday at Oxford in October 1965 he heard that David Sheppard would be preaching the “Freshers’ Sermon” put on by the Oxford Christian Union (OICCU) and went along. he was the first to respond to give his life to Christ. Lance became a teacher and worked for Scripture Union as an organiser of drama productions, holidays and magazines in schools.

From 1978 he worked freelance as an actor, writer, speaker and trainer. Lance married Sue Tydeman, a Deaconess, in April 1979. They had two children, Joy and Robin. Molly, one of their two grandchildren, read her poem ‘Gorgeous Grandpa’ at the service. In 1998 he went full-time as a performer and until 2016 toured the UK with his one-man shows. From St Paul’s Cathedral to church halls he entertained congregations with Biblical presentations. His cricket, poetry and music hall shows were seen from the National Gallery to the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2008 Lance met Belinda Yates (soprano) and Heather Chamberlain (pianist) and formed the words-and music trio ‘In Voice and Verse’. They toured for eight years celebrating the 400th anniversaries of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Trio lives on (with other actors stepping into Lance’s shoes) as does his blog the poetry podcast. He stopped touring in 2017 but continued to lead guided ‘Poetry walks’ around London to Tennyson’s Twickenham and Betjeman’s Highgate. He became heavily involved with Gerard Manley Hopkins Society. Leila Abu-Sharr, a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham Poetry Enjoyment Group, which he founded, recalled: “It was never about him, but about whom he was able to delight. He brought pleasure, humour and warm hearted kindness to so many.”‘
Chris Sugden, Editor of the Church of England Newspaper

On a more personal note it is worth reminding ourselves of Lance’s enormous contribution to keeping JB in the public eye through his regular Highgate walks,(which included familiar places from Summoned by Bells, such as 31 West Hill and the Burdett-Coutts estate), walks around Middlesex and his many poetry performances. Its remarkable to think that he did his last walk just a few weeks before his death, and these walks are part of the JB well-trodden ways and now folk lore. Those members who attended one of these walks were able to gain a sense of place in a far more personalised way. I like to think Lance as the complete JB aficionado: his Christian faith and love of the Church of England, love of bicycling, love of railways, the music hall and of course of poetry and verse, all shared passions. The one jarring note was cricket to which Lance was a self-confessed ‘slave’ and JB had the horrors of, as an alleged non-hearty. (never sure if JB counted his ability on the golf course, with a handicap of 18, as participating in sport!). Lance brought JB alive in so many ways and his ability as an actor and skills as a teacher provided the ideal combination to perform JB, particularly as the poems are meant to be read aloud.

In a recent discussion about Lance, Horace Liberty and I talked about the way Lance gave confidence and encouragement to those around him and perhaps Lance’s most significant talent was the gift of friendship which was so much an attribute of JB. Lance had a way of listening that made you think you were the only person that mattered. He once said that he saw himself as a conductor rather than Chairman, and that matched his love of classical music; he was a conductor of the talents around him and brought different aspects out of the ‘music’ to suit the occasicon.

His performances of JB’s poetry, many on CD thank goodness, provided insights into how JB poems could be brought to life. On his CD The Betjeman You Never Knew he reads poems that the BBC had not recorded the copyrighted, and thus added greatly to our appreciation of a wider set of poems beyond the usual suspects.  One that struck me greatly was ‘Sunday Afternoon Service in St Enodoc Church, Cornwall’, where Lance intones the words ‘Come on, Come on’ at the beginning of the verse as a tolling bell summoning the faithful to Evensong, and this provided wider significance to the poem’s meaning and intent. It increases the precise nature of the metre and enables the listener to hear beyond the words, almost as if they were part of a hymn to Evensong. Lance also offers the opinion that the final verse gives us JB’s finest description of the Cornish coast, well worth revisiting time and again. Lance could also help any reader to spot nuances of meaning simply by pronouncing words or introducing pauses that changed the impact of the poem. Another example is his terrific reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost also on CD and a brilliant reminder that Milton, blind as he was when he wrote it, meant this great poem to be read aloud and appreciated for the great sweep of language that Lance revels in.

To say we shall miss him is an understatement. Lance was the last of the regular JB performers. Even when he allegedly retired in 2016, he still gave talks and walks. During lockdowns he produced his memorable and highly entertaining Poetry Podcasts (https://thepoetrypodcastwithlancepierson.com), 17 in all, and the quality and range of these are a lasting testament to Lance’s energy and commitment to the spoken word and poetry in particular. Currently there is not one to take his place as a JB performer, nor I add as such a constant friend and JB enthusiast. We are determined in the Betjeman Society to ensure that his legacy will be taken forward and his inspiration will remain.

Editor of the Betjeman Society Newsletter