A cussed acrostic

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

John Betjeman

John Betjeman

Under the pseudonym Eve de Harben (an anagram of ever been had), Hillier sent Wilson a love letter purportedly written by Betjeman to Honor Tracy, an author Betjeman had worked with at the Admiralty. No romantic connection had previously been drawn between them, so it was a tantalising item.

Wilson believed ‘de Harben’s’ story that she had received a typed copy of the letter from her father, who was supposedly a cousin of Tracy. Wilson duly put it in his book, which was published in 2005. Here is the love letter, with bold formatting added to mark the acrostic:

Darling Honor,

I loved yesterday. All day, I’ve thought of nothing else. No other love I’ve had means so much. Was it just an aberration on your part, or will you meet me at Mrs Holmes’s again – say on Saturday? I won’t be able to sleep until I have your answer.

Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course, but I have a Romaunt of the Rose feeling about it too. On Saturday we could have lunch at Fortt’s, then go back to Mrs. H’s. Never mind if you can’t make it then. I am free on Sunday too or Sunday week. Signal me tomorrow as to whether and when you can come.

Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v funny. He’s somebody I’d like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books. Tinkerty-tonk, my darling. I pray I’ll hear from you tomorrow. If I don’t I’ll visit your office in a fake beard.

All love, JB

To spell it out: A.N. Wilson is a shit.

When the hidden message was pointed out to him, Wilson saw the funny side and said the edition with the hoax letter could become a collector’s item. At first Hillier denied responsibility, but then he came clean, admitting that when a newspaper began calling Wilson’s book ‘the big one’, it was just too much to bear.

And for a choice riposte in a false love letter between men of letters, what better than a four-letter word?

[Cross-posted on Strong Language]

20 Responses to A cussed acrostic

  1. smirkpretty says:

    Oh, to have such time to spare… and the wit to pull this off!

  2. astraya says:

    He must have spent hours working on that! Almost anyone else wouldn’t have bothered. He not only had to hide the acrostic, but also to make the tone of the letter convincingly Betjeman-ish. All that took considerable ingenuity.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Betjeman himself would probably have been amused, had he lived to see it. Rendering the letter in his style was a nifty feat. And, of course, creating a plausible back-story. Vulgarity: smuggled. Object: achieved.

  3. astraya says:

    Bother – I should have checked the coding before I posted!

  4. […] [Cross-posted on Sentence first] […]

  5. scarlett1000 says:

    Great story! Talk about revenge is a dish best served cold!

  6. All I can think of is how weird it is for “I loved yesterday” to mean anything other than that “yesterday” is the object of “loved” (the weather was fantastic). The most obvious difference between that and an unremarkable sentence like “I ate yesterday” is that love is not an event with a position in time and space. But, without having the time right now to analyse it, I feel there are also more subtle reasons why the sentence is not admissable in English as I know it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      For me the most obvious difference between “I loved yesterday” (as used in the letter) and “I ate yesterday” is that yesterday is a noun in the first and an adverb in the second. The nominal use strikes me as perfectly ordinary, if less common.

      • Not with you. In the context of the letter, the writer uses “I loved yesterday” to mean something like “Yesterday I was occupied by the experience of love“. This is exactly the same syntax as “I ate yesterday“, which means, “Yesterday I took part in the activity of eating“. My point is that, for me, “I loved yesterdaycannot mean the above, and can only mean “I found yesterday to be a lovely day“. But in the context of the letter it’s very clear that the writer means the former.

        (Incidentally, linguists have been known to argue over attributing parts of speech to “yesterday”, so I think it best to sidestep this. The important thing is whether two sentences have the same or different syntax.)

        • Stan Carey says:

          I interpret the line differently, which is interesting. In my reading, “I loved yesterday” is the writer saying he loved the day itself, a day he spent with his lover. Like “I love Fridays” but in reference to a single, specific day.

          It makes syntactic and semantic sense that way, whereas it doesn’t quite work the other way, as you note (though it is poetic). The noun/adverb distinction here seems helpful.

          What do others think?

          • The basis of my interpretation is that the third sentence refers back to the same love, and I cannot accept that the writer meant “No other love I’ve had means so much as the love I have for yesterday“. It follows that “yesterday” is not the object of “love” in the first sentence either. (Or that the writer was sloppy. That’s always a possibility.)

          • Stan Carey says:

            We can agree that he didn’t mean “No other love I’ve had means so much as the love I have for yesterday”. But I don’t agree that it follows that yesterday can’t be the object of loved in his first line. You can consider that sloppy, but I don’t. It’s a love letter, not an essay.

          • Well, in summary, I interpreted the first sentence the same way you did, but then had a ‘garden path’ reaction to the rest of the paragraph. Will definitely check back tomorrow and see if anyone else has added an opinion.

          • astraya says:

            The default interpretation of ‘I loved yesterday’ has ‘loved’ as a transitive verb and ‘yesterday’ as its object noun. The alternative interpretation has ‘loved’ as an intransitive verb and ‘yesterday’ as an adjunct adverb. To reach the alternative interpretation, I would need a very strong context, eg ‘There are days when I love and days when I hate. I loved yesterday. I hate today. I will love again tomorrow’. In the letter above, I first took the default interpretation until the the third sentence forced me to re-evaluate, without providing quite enough context to reach the alternative interpretation. ‘No other love I’ve had [viz, for my love for yesterday] means so much to me’ is a very strange expression. It points me towards ‘No other love I’d had [viz, my love for you] (yesterday (and other days, presumably)) ….’ without quite getting me there.

          • Stan Carey says:

            To reach the alternative interpretation, I would need a very strong context

            Me too, and it’s not there.

  7. afarawayhome says:

    I definitely read ‘yesterday’ too many times in the past minute to have any opinions any more…

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