Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: The muse of a laureate and spy
I met John Betjeman here in the 1950s when he was brought over by his friend, the Earl of Wicklow. Though I was much younger, being with the two of them was one perpetual laugh. They never stopped chuckling about things as they were.
Billy Wicklow was my best friend when I was a student and in my early years at the bar, and Betjeman was his best friend so I did get to meet him in congenial circumstances. Growing up in Dublin, one could not have failed to know something about "Sean O Betjeman", as he'd been known when he was British Consul in Ireland during World War II. He had been sent over as a sort of too-good-to-be-true spy working as first secretary in the British Embassy. He quickly joined the best golf club in the country, Portmarnock, and became a celebrated figure in the city. But if he got anything out of Ireland, he certainly paid us back in good coinage.
He was responsible for putting Patrick Kavanagh on the road to fame when he persuaded Cyril Connolly to publish The Great Hunger. In Portmarnock Golf Club they thought him a howl. My father used to come home from golf on Sundays with the latest tale of Betjeman on the golf course. Indeed, some of his best poems are about Ireland, showing the effect the place had on him. It didn't hurt, of course, that his wife Penelope had become a Catholic. She herself was an extraordinary person who used write to John in cockney dialogue. Certainly, without her, he couldn't have lasted as long as he did and end up Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate.
His most famous poem was about Miss Joan Hunter Dunn who he was very taken with, and who had been his partner in a tennis tournament.
FROM A SUBALTERN'S LOVESONG
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,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun.
Oh! Full Surrey twilight! Importunate band!
Oh! Strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!
John Betjeman 1906-1984
*Subaltern: junior officer, ranked below captain, in the British army