It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jan 28, 2010

AN Wilson is a shit: Betjeman love letter hoax

His one regret, Sir John Betjeman once said, was that he had not had enough sex. So the late poet laureate’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 Wilson’s new book Betjeman as evidence of the poet’s previously unknown “fling”.

«The telltale sign that the letter is a joke is that the capital letters at the start of each sentence spell out "A N Wilson is a shit". A journalist drew the biographer's attention to the coded message last week, and after rereading the letter he admitted that it was a hoax. "Of course I saw the funny side - I laughed about it a lot when I found out," Wilson told the Guardian yesterday. "It is quite childish of somebody and I have absolutely no interest in who wrote it."
Here's the love letter, with the code highlighted:
«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»
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The identity of the trickster was unknown at first, 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 “despicable”, he was “not guilty” of the hoax.

The “love letter” 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.

In a covering note, someone signing herself (or himself) “Eve de Harben”, with the address Résidence de la Mer, Avenue de la Plage, Roquebrune on the Côte D’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 Betjeman’s regret, expressed in a television interview in 1984, the year he died, when he said: “I haven’t had enough sex.”

Hillier spent 25 years on his three-volume Betjeman biography, authorized 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 “You forcibly illustrate my maxim that the ones we don’t sleep with are the dearest and the best.”

Wilson maintains the relationship was sexual. “I interviewed Tracy in an old people’s home not long before she died and she told me there had been an affair,” he said.
Wilson would not be drawn, however, on his suspicions over the true identity of de Harben. He said: “All I’d say is this person must know an amazing amount about Betjeman and his life. But I really don’t think I should name who I think it is.”

Finally, Hiller admitted that he originated this prank. After The Sunday Times revealed the hoax, Hillier composed a short sequel which he was going to send to Wilson. “It said, ‘My French letter has leaked’,” revealed Hillier. “In the end I decided against sending it since it was perhaps one letter too far.”

Sir John Betjeman, (28 August 1906 – 19 May 1984) was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack". He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and a much-loved figure on British television.

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