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.
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:
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?