Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Departure of Miss Joan Hunter Dunne

It was like a personal blow, a brief moment of collective public sadness and then it was over. Joan Jackson had died.

Joan who? Well, if you must know, Joan Hunter Dunne, John Betjeman’s muse and inspiration for a time, memorialised for ever in the words of his poem, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song.’ Admittedly, she was 92. But her passing inspired a third leader in the Daily Telegraph which began with the words, ‘The moss-dappled paths beneath the conifers of healthy Aldershot are deserted today and the rhododendrons drip softly in mourning for Joan Jackson’.

John Betjeman, who was later to become Britain’s Poet Laureate, met Joan Jackson at the outset of the Second World War, when he was working in the Ministry of Information. He was walking down a corridor and saw her in a canteen. He said to a friend he was with, the cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster: ‘Gosh, look! I bet she’s a doctor’s daughter from Aldershot!’

It turned out he was right, in that she was a doctor’s daughter, but from nearby Farnborough, not Aldershot. She was in fact in charge of the canteen and was regarded as something of a martinet. It is quite possible that Betjeman, who had a streak of feebleness among his shortcomings, found this aspect sexually attractive. He located her in Aldershot for the poem, however, which begins:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun

And he went on to present himself as defeated in a game of tennis:

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! Weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

In the flush of his own youthful nature, Betjeman wrote the poem well before he met her. This event was really to seek her blessing on the fact that he had published, since the poem depended very much on the perfect, but elusive, metre her name brought to the many lines in the poem where it appears. Without it, he had nothing. Not surprisingly he went down on his knees before her when he was introduced and she burst out laughing.

He took her out to lunch and gave her a copy of the magazine, Horizon, for February 1941, and edited by Cyril Connolly, and said ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’ve written a poem about you.’ She had no choice but to accept this tribute but she found the poetry picture of her very close to her real life and was ‘absolutely overwhelmed’. It relieved the monotony of war.

He was not quite obsessed but he did keep up with her, after he had left the Ministry to go and be a spy in Ireland. He learned from people still in the ministry, including his former secretary, that after his departure Joan Hunter Dunn stopped smiling.

The poem about her was later performed in Oxford, and he wrote to Roland Pym, who was designing a backcloth and told him ‘she is now Mrs Wycliffe-Jackson and lives in Ashley Gardens and you ought to go and see her, she is a lovely sturdy creole type with curly hair and strong arms and strapping frame and jolly smile and soft laughing voice, a girl to lean against for life and die adoring’.

Betjeman did not lean against her too much. Their relationship was chaste and he was conscious enough of her and her very English, middle-class background to be able to tell Pym of ‘her house, rather Letchworth and Welwyny, with toothbrushes airing at open bathroom windows and certainly rhododendrons and evergreens – and the wire netting of a tennis court enclosure.’ He had never been to the house. He was imagining it.

The pace of his life, after departing from her company, quickened appreciably. He was officially ‘Press Attaché’. Unofficially he was part of British intelligence, keeping a watch on his opposite number, Karl Peterson – a name used by the writer John Buchan for one of his villains – who was German press secretary. The British Ambassador, Sir John Maffey, did well in Ireland and was quite clever in winning the confidence of Eamon de Valera. Betjeman was a good aide in his attempts to improve Anglo-Irish relations. Frank Gallagher, who was director of the Irish Government Information Service, had dealings with John Betjeman and watched how he tackled the problems of interpreting two very different societies to each other. ‘John solved it by finding something to hurroosh for in all of us, disappointing as that may be to some of us who wondered what on earth he found to hurroo at in the other fellow.’

Gallagher was scornful of Betjeman’s request for an Irish teacher, never imagining that the English poet might get anywhere. Instead, he revelled at the challenge and used to travel on the tops of Dublin buses practising Irish phrases out loud. Unlike the probable impact of this on a London bus, it had the effect of gathering people around him to help him with pronunciation and explain the language. By the time he left Dublin he could write letters in Irish and presumably translate tricky documents that were circulated in the first official language as a defence against outsiders reading the contents.

Betjeman ‘hurrood’ quite a bit in the sometimes doleful company of Paddy Kavanagh, for whom he had a high regard. Kavanagh liked his English friend and wrote something of him in a couple of poems.

He eventually rented a house from the painters, Eva and May Hamilton. They were two of the five daughters of an impoverished aristocratic family whose seat was Hamwood in County Meath. Being their tenant opened up doors to the artistic and landed gentry society for John Betjeman and his wife, who brought her Arab gelding over and rode him in Phoenix Park.

One of the many people he met was Frank Pakenham, whose brother, the Earl, ran the Gate Theatre, his wife writing or adapting plays for it. Pakenham formed the impression that Betjeman ‘had carved out a niche for himself that no other Englishman had done, and had won the confidence of a number of extremists who normally were quite proof against British blandishments’.

The IRA planned to shoot him but the officer charged with the task called when Betjeman was ‘out of Dublin for a spell’. This allowed time for the man to read some of his poems. He came to the conclusion that the author of the lines:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun

Could not possibly be a spy, and he was spared.

When he died she attended his memorial service in 1984. She told her son, Ed, she had never had an affair with him. ‘I was in love with Dad’, she added.