Betjeman Poet, hero of Middle England & a very bad boy

The secret second wife! The gay affair with a Labour MP! Literary Edinburgh is agog...

By Jonathan Thompson
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:00

The idea of John Betjeman as the lyricist of Middle England - celebrating old churches, evensong and country tea rooms - suffered a considerable jolt yesterday when an extract from a forthcoming biography of the poet claimed he was "a compulsive philanderer who had a secret 'second wife' and boasted of a gay fling with a top Labour politician".

The extract - from Betjeman, by A N Wilson, to be published this month - drew on unpublished letters to reveal details of the poet's lengthy relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of the Duke of Devonshire, with whom he lived towards the end of his life. It also addressed persistent suggestions that the poet laureate was gay and that he was an inveterate womaniser. But, as the book makes clear, Betjeman was less a practising Lothario haunting the salons of literary England for fresh prey than the hatcher of a lifetime of schoolboy crushes - both gay and straight.

His capacity for emotional danger was apparent even when he was in school at Marlborough. Discovering that Lord Alfred Douglas, the lover of Oscar Wilde, was still alive, he began a correspondence with the still-notorious exile, which was terminated only after his father explained to the future poet that Lord Alfred was "a bugger".

There followed crushes on a neighbour's daughter and an Oxford contemporary called Basil Ava. Legend - and it is no more than that - has it that he was, for one night only, the lover of W H Auden. And the story that he was also the gay lover of a Labour leader is based on a facetious comment made by the poet to Osbert Lancaster when he told him that Hugh Gaitskell was "the only Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition I ever went to bed with".

Thereafter, although there was the odd pash for beguiling men, his crushes and brief encounters were with women: a waitress he picked up, who then rather blotted her copybook by performing dance steps up the aisle of one of Betjeman's beloved churches; the daughter of the chief of the Cairo police; Pamela Mitford; Penelope Chetwode, who became his wife (her snobbish mother, appalled, said: "We ask people like that to our houses, but we don't marry them"); a Molly Higgins, and more. Nearly all were unrequited.

Some of his passions became the subject of his more famous poems. There really was a Peggy Purey-Cust (featured in "Summoned by Bells"); Joan Hunter Dunn, the shiny sportsgirl of a poem who was, in reality, the bossy woman who ran the Ministry of Information canteen; and Alice Jennings, a married woman whom he met at the BBC and who was the "such a very ordinary little woman" of "In a Bath Tea Shop".

"Betjeman loved to pretend he was gay, particularly when in the company of gay men, but in terms of what he did there is no evidence at all to suggest that after he left school he was involved in any homosexual relationships at all," said Wilson. "In fact, quite the opposite was true. All of the people he loved and chased were women."

Wilson's book will be launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week in time for celebrations of the poet's centenary. This will be marked by a number of events this month, including two BBC2 documentaries to be screened tomorrow night, and a number of talks and gatherings organised by Betjeman's daughter, Candida, and the Betjeman Society.

The highlight will be the star-studded John Betjeman Gala, a Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, with proceeds going to the mental health charity Sane. Taking place on Sunday 10 September, the gala will feature, among others, Dame Judi Dench, Edward Fox, Stephen Fry, Nick Cave, Richard E Grant, Jools Holland, Joanna Lumley, Bill Nighy and Prunella Scales.

The Edinburgh Book Festival, which began yesterday and runs until 28 August, will feature Al Gore, the former US vice-president, and the Nobel Prize-winning writers Seamus Heaney and Harold Pinter, as well as the current Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. New work from authors including Kate Atkinson and Simon Schama will also feature.

Additional reporting by Kiri Kankhwende

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