A. N. Wilson, the epitomy of English snootiness, recently fell for an elaborate prank that he could have avoided if he had drawn a design inference. Note that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Eve de HarbenÃ¢â‚¬Â doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exist either, and the letters in Ã¢â‚¬Å“herÃ¢â‚¬Â name are an anagram for Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ever been had?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Why am I being so hard on Wilson? Here’s what he wrote back in 1999 about the good people of Kansas: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Their simple, idiotic credulity as a populace would have been the envy of Lenin. That is the tragic paradox. The Land of the Free, telly and burgerfed, has become the Land of the Credulous Moron.Ã¢â‚¬Â (go here and scroll down) What goes around comes around.
The Sunday Times August 27, 2006
Betjeman love letter is horrid hoax
Richard Brooks, Arts Editor
HIS one regret, Sir John Betjeman once said, was that he had not had enough sex. So the late poet laureateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s biographer could be forgiven the thrill of discovery he felt when someone sent him a passionate love letter supposedly written by Betjeman to a mistress.
Now, however, it turns out that the poet, born 100 years ago tomorrow, never wrote the letter. Instead, AN Wilson, the biographer, admitted this weekend he had fallen victim to an elaborate hoax.
The trick was so successful that the letter has been published in WilsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s new book Betjeman as evidence of the poetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s previously unknown Ã¢â‚¬Å“flingÃ¢â‚¬Â.
The giveaway Ã¢â‚¬â€ and a clue that a bitter rival of WilsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s may be behind the trick Ã¢â‚¬â€ is that the capital letters at the beginning of the sentences in the letter spell out a vivid personal insult to the biographer.
After a Sunday Times reporter pointed this out to him this weekend, Wilson reread the letter and said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I should have smelt a rat . . . Obviously the letter is a joke, a hoax.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The identity of the trickster is not known, but one acknowledged rival of Wilson has denied involvement. Bevis Hillier, author of a three-volume biography of Betjeman, said that, although he found Wilson Ã¢â‚¬Å“despicableÃ¢â‚¬Â, he was Ã¢â‚¬Å“not guiltyÃ¢â‚¬Â of the hoax.
The Ã¢â‚¬Å“love letterÃ¢â‚¬Â appeared to have been written by Betjeman in May 1944, 11 years after he had married Penelope Chetwode.
It was addressed to Honor Tracy, an Anglo-Irish writer with whom Betjeman worked at the Admiralty during the war.
The letter first came to light about two years ago as Wilson was researching the biography.
In a covering note, someone signing herself (or himself) Ã¢â‚¬Å“Eve de HarbenÃ¢â‚¬Â, with the address RÃƒÂ©sidence de la Mer, Avenue de la Plage, Roquebrune on the CÃƒÂ´te DÃ¢â‚¬â„¢Azur, wrote that she had received the letter from her father, a cousin of Tracy. Tracy herself died in 1989.
De Harben sent a typed copy of the letter. The original, according to the note, had been sold to an American collector of Betjemania.
The affair appeared all the more intriguing to Wilson because of BetjemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s regret, expressed in a television interview in 1984, the year he died, when he said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t had enough sex.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The letter begins: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Darling Honor, I loved yesterday. All day IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve thought of nothing else. No other love IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve had means so much.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Later on in the letter the poet waxed that Ã¢â‚¬Å“love has given me a miss for so long and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it, of course.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Betjeman then ended the letter: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Tinkerty-tonk, my Darling. I pray IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll hear from you tomorrow. If I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll visit your office in a fake beard. All love, JB.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Close study of the letter, however, shows that the capital letters at the beginning of each sentence spell out a message: Ã¢â‚¬Å“AN Wilson is a shitÃ¢â‚¬Â.
With hindsight, Wilson accepts he could have asked more questions.
He says he did think it strange that when he finally returned it to de Harben in France, the letter was returned soon after with Ã¢â‚¬Å“Addressee and address not knownÃ¢â‚¬Â.
Roquebrune exists, as does its Avenue de la Plage. There is a place called RÃƒÂ©sidence de la Mer, a block of flats near the pebbly beach. This weekend, Mario Ballestra, concierge at the block for the past 40 years, said he had never heard of de Harben or of Bevis Hillier.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have had just three English people living here in the last 30 years,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Ballestra, Ã¢â‚¬Å“one called Mr Thompson who is in his 60s, and the others, a young couple who come here each summer. I have never met a Mme de Harben.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The attention of The Sunday Times was drawn to the hoax a few days ago when a journalist also received a letter from de Harben.
It had the same French address and the same story that she had married a Frenchman. In the letter, de Harben confessed the love letter she had sent to Wilson was Ã¢â‚¬Å“spuriousÃ¢â‚¬Â.
She had made the whole thing up Ã¢â‚¬â€ including the rude message Ã¢â‚¬â€ to avenge an attack which Wilson himself had made some years ago on Humphrey Carpenter, a Ã¢â‚¬Å“dear friend of mineÃ¢â‚¬Â. Carpenter was himself a distinguished biographer and book reviewer for The Sunday Times.
This explanation, however, appears to be yet another spoof. CarpenterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s widow Mari said this weekend she had never heard of de Harben. She also said Wilson and Carpenter had patched up their differences not long before her husbandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death.
Despite the French address, the padded envelope containing the letter was postmarked Ã¢â‚¬Å“west LondonÃ¢â‚¬Â and a tiny sticker on the back indicated it had been bought at Warren & Son, a stationer in Winchester, which happens to be HillierÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home city.
Hillier, however, was insistent. He said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the sort of lark I do . . . I am not guilty. But it is very Betjemanesque.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He may deny involvement in the hoax, but Hillier does not like Wilson. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The man is despicable,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When my 2002 volume on Betjeman came out, Wilson wrote in The Spectator that Hillier is not really a writer at all. His book is a hopeless mish-mash.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Hillier spent 25 years on his three-volume Betjeman biography, authorised by the poet before his death. He acknowledges that Tracy was close friends with Betjeman, who lived with a mistress for much of his marriage.
But Hillier is dubious about any sexual relationship with Tracy, pointing to a letter from the poet to her which reads Ã¢â‚¬Å“You forcibly illustrate my maxim that the ones we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sleep with are the dearest and the best.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Wilson maintains the relationship was sexual. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I interviewed Tracy in an old peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home not long before she died and she told me there had been an affair,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Wilson would not be drawn, however, on his suspicions over the true identity of de Harben. He said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“All IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d say is this person must know an amazing amount about Betjeman and his life. But I really donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think I should name who I think it is.Ã¢â‚¬Â