Furnish’d and burnish’d

Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Mrs Joan Jackson died this week at the age of 92. That’s Joan Jackson née Hunter Dunn, in case you were wondering: the muse for one of John Betjeman’s best-known poems, A Subaltern’s Love Song.

Simon Jenkins is a bit sniffy about Betjeman’s “middle-brow love poem” (“close to doggerel”), but his Guardian column on the subject is still a fun read:

[T]wo things elevated the Subaltern to popular stardom. One was Betjeman’s conversion of the trivia of suburban life into an expression of hilarious, helter-skelter eroticism. The poem races from the “strenuous singles we played after tea”, to the “there on the landing’s the light on your hair”, the “ominous, ominous dancing ahead” and the final banality of “We sat in the car park till twenty to one/And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.”

As for “Miss Joan Hunted Down” (as she came to be nicknamed, due to the “whirlwind of frenetic biographical inquiry” prompted by the poem):

…[she] appears to have been a paragon not just of fantasy tennis but of an amalgamated sisterhood of muses. She continued to regard Betjeman as nice and a gentleman, and kept letters from him that were wretchedly stolen in a burglary in 1996. According to her son, “she never said she was proud to be his muse, but she did not consider it a joke”. This should be the motto of muse-ological discretion down the ages.

How very perceptive of her to recognise that Betjeman’s poem was “not a joke”. Always a mistake to write Betjeman off as a clown.

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