OBITUARY:Peggy Purey-Cust

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The Independent Online
The poet John Betjeman had a collector's eye for proper names. He spotted them, squirrelled them and then buried them in his verse like currants in a bun - the names of churches and architects, suburban railway stations, double-barrelled motor cars, West Country villages and London hotels, Oxford streets, hot drinks before bed. And, of course, girls. "Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn / Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun / . . . I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn". Then, "O Peggy Purey-Cust, how pure you were: / My first and purest love, Miss Purey-Cust!"

The Joan Hunter Dunn of "A Subaltern's Love-song", introduced to the public by Cyril Connolly in Horizon in 1941, was a real person - she ran the canteen at the Ministry of Information - transcribed into heroic fantasy: "Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand! . . ./ We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I'm engaged to Joan Hunter Dunn." Peggy Purey- Cust, on the other hand, is an icon of Betjeman's childhood who makes a straight appearance, and a very poignant one, in his eloquent verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960). They were at school together, at Byron House in Highgate, north London, and neighbours on West Hill, she in a Georgian "palace" at the top of the hill, he, a tradesman's son, in a semi-detached villa down the road.

Satchel on back I hurried up West Hill

To catch you on your morning walk

to school,

Your nanny with you and your

golden hair

Streaming like sunlight. Strict

deportment made

You hold yourself erect and every step

Bounced up and down as though you

walked on springs.

Your ice-blue eyes, your lashes long

and light,

Your sweetly freckled face and

turned-up nose

So haunted me that all my loves since


Have had a look of Peggy Purey-Cust.

Once, the boy Betjeman (or Betjemann as he still was) was asked by his idol to tea; but he was never asked again. He gave Peggy a book and it was sent back to him. "Oh gone for ever, Peggy Purey-Cust!"

Marjorie ("Peggy") Purey-Cust was born in 1905 (the year before Betjeman), the daughter of Admiral Sir Herbert Purey-Cust, Hydrographer of the Navy and a scion of Lord Brownlow's family. Her grandfather Arthur Purey-Cust was Dean of York; one cousin, Sir Lionel Cust, was Surveyor of the King's Pictures, another, Harry Cust, the rakish journalist/MP and putative father of Lady Diana Cooper. She was a child of the mainline Establishment, a world all but closed to the son of a manufacturer of locking decanter-holders.

It is a curious sort of literary celebrity to have thrust upon you, to be named in a poem. After her father died in 1938, Peggy Purey-Cust, who never married, moved to Minehead in Somerset with her mother and an aunt. There, apart from a period in the Sixties when she lived in her mother's native country of Australia, she remained until her death. Neither Bevis Hillier, Betjeman's biographer, nor Candida Lycett Green, his daughter and the editor of his letters, ever reached her there, but Betjeman did. In the last year of his life, following one of his television appearances, he and his muse enjoyed a brief correspondence.

James Fergusson

Marjorie ("Peggy") Purey-Cust: born London 12 October 1905; died Minehead 22 March 1995.