Author admits hoaxing rival with Betjeman 'letter'

Frisky billet-doux that fooled writer into believing poet had long affair with a civil servant turns out to have been forged by fellow biographer
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A literary hoaxer who duped the author of a new book about Sir John Betjeman has been unmasked as a fellow biographer of the poet.

The writer AN Wilson fell for a bogus love letter which was sent to him, and appeared to have been sent by the former poet laureate to a wartime colleague. Now Bevis Hillier, the author of a three-volume work devoted to Betjeman who had previously denied any part in the con, has admitted that he was responsible for the scam because he was annoyed about the advance fanfare Wilson's book was receiving.

Wilson published the letter in his new book, Betjeman: A Life, and pointed to it as evidence of an affair which until that point had been completely unknown. But a careful reading of the letter would have given him a hefty clue that it was not what it seemed. The capital letters which began each of the sentences spelled out the phrase "AN Wilson is a shit".

The letter purported to have been written by Betjeman in 1944, a good 11 years after his marriage to Penelope Chetwode. The letter was written to an Honor Tracy, a woman with whom he had worked at the Admiralty.

It came into Wilson's hands when he was researching the book last year, apparently from a woman who signed herself "Eve De Haben", who was based on France's Cote d'Azur. De Harben had claimed that she received the letter from her father, who was a cousin of Tracy.

After the hoax came to light last week, the hunt was on for the culprit. Hillier, a 66-year-old writer and editor who spent 25 years putting together his own masterwork on Betjeman, was the prime suspect. He has now owned up and told The Sunday Times: "It's a fair cop."

Hillier had initially been angry when Wilson reviewed the second volume of his biography in an edition of the Spectator and described it as "a hopeless mishmash". But he was pushed over the edge when Wilson's new tome received some advance adulation. "When a newspaper started billing Wilson's book as 'the big one' it was just too much," he said.

Hillier now admits that he built his letter around the slogan, making the sentences fit the cryptic message. But to ensure that the work looked genuine and could have indeed come from Betjeman's own hand, he used giveaway phrases such as "tinkerty-tonk", which anyone familiar with his life would have known that he used.

"Eve de Harben", a pseudonym, it now transpires, which is simply an anagram of the phrase "ever been had", blew the gaffe on Wilson by sending a letter to a journalist confessing that it was a con. That confession gave a hint that it was Hillier who was indeed coordinating the spoof - a sticker on the back of the envelope showed it had been bought in Winchester, his home city.

Wilson's book was published to coincide with the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of Betjeman's birth, which will culminate on Sunday with a Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.