Saturday 27 August 2011

More John Betjeman

A Subaltern's Love Song
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,

What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament -- you against me!

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.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,

How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,

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

Her father's euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,

And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath.
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,

For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,

On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads "not adopted", by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,

Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,

And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.

We sat in the car park till twenty to one

And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The characters in this poem are middle-middle - not out of the top drawer. A subaltern was a lowly young officer.

In the 20s and 30s, Aldershot was full of new houses built in a self-consciously cottagey, olde-worlde style on sandy soil that was no use for farming. It was popular with army families, who laid out tennis courts and golf courses where there had been heath and woodland - and conifers.

A euonymus is a variegated shrub, and rather suburban - as are summer houses, verandahs and gin-and-lime. Joan's window is "low" and "leaded" in the cottage style, to go with the "oak" stairs. The pictures of Egypt were probably souvenirs of her father's postings abroad.

Joan can only afford a small Hillman car to drive down the wooded roads. Camberley may be built up - but there is enough of nature left to enchant the lovers who are quite happy to miss the dance in the Golf Club.

Betjeman shows us that a minor officer wooing a tennis-playing girl in a banal setting can be as romantic as a troubadour. No mention of lawns, vicars, crumpets or honey.

Betjeman's Phone for the Fish Knives, deconstructed.


  1. The funny and sad thing is that many seem to look down on Betjeman for being middle class, but some mean he's "not quite like us" while the others mean he's "posh".

  2. He was crushed when a friend's mother asked "Who was that rather common little boy?" Sometimes it seems that the worst you can say about someone is "they're so middle class"!