April 17, 2008.

Joan Jackson: The Times obituary

Muse of John Betjeman immortalised as Joan Hunter Dunn in his popular poem: The Subaltern’s Love-song


Joan Hunter Dunn


Joan Hunter Dunn, later Joan Jackson, was the supreme muse of John Betjeman and the heroine of perhaps his best-known poem, A Subaltern’s Love-song. She was the embodiment of the England Betjeman loved. She was the incarnation of his haut-suburbia ideal: a fresh-faced, very English beauty, completely at home amid tennis courts, rose beds, clipped hedges, golden retrievers, Women’s Institutes, jumble sales and sit-up-and-beg bicycles.


The poem in which Betjeman immortalised her :-   ‘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 ! Full 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.



Betjeman met her during the Second World War. He was in his thirties, a married man with one son. She was in her twenties, unmarried. He was in the Films Division of the Ministry of Information (MoI), with offices in the Senate House of the University of London; she was on the catering staff. Betjeman, who had been turned down by all the Armed Services, had been wangled into the MoI by his friend Kenneth Clark, the art historian. (Clark had been made head of the Films Division after Churchill allegedly growled: “He knows about pictures, doesn’t he?”)

Betjeman’s main role was to commission short propaganda films on such subjects as “Dig for Victory” and “Careless Talk Costs Lives”, from film-makers like Sidney Gilliat, who also directed the important 1943 film Millions Like Us, about women working in factories. Gilliat thought Betjeman was generally effective — “but also you could say to him, ‘I think that’s a bloody silly idea’, which you wouldn’t have dreamt of saying to K. Clark or Jack Beddington, who later ran the Films Division.”
On December 30, 1940, Betjeman wrote to Gilliat, at the end of a business letter: “I have fallen in love with a girl in the catering department here who is a doctor’s daughter from Aldershot. She was lacrosse captain and tennis champion at Queen Anne’s Caversham.”

In a radio broadcast of 1976 he recalled how he had first encountered her. “I was walking down a corridor at the Ministry of Information with my friend Reggie Ross Williamson when we saw a beautiful girl with red hair. ‘Gosh, look!’ I said. ‘I bet she’s a doctor’s daughter from Aldershot.’ And she was.” That was not quite accurate: in fact Joan Hunter Dunn came from Farnborough in Hampshire — but Betjeman later maintained, “that was near enough Aldershot to count”.

One of his colleagues at the MoI, the film director Dallas Bower, assumed that Joan was an ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) volunteer seconded to the MoI; but in fact she had been appointed to the catering staff of the University of London before the war. In a 1990 memoir Michael Bonavia, who had been assistant clerk of the University’s court, remembered his first meeting with her.

“Mrs Winifred Bruce, the Catering Manageress, was efficient and conscientious, but the increase in the turnover of the Refectories made it necessary for her to obtain the support of an assistant. One day, I interviewed three girls for this position. One girl had a diploma from King’s College of Household and Social Science, and had a vivid personality. Her name was Joan Hunter Dunn.

“She seemed slightly amused by the proceedings and wore a short eye-veil. I asked her, rather pompously, what she knew about institutional catering. ‘Nothing at all,’ she replied, and laughed. She got the job.”

When war broke out and the university moved out of the Senate House, Hunter Dunn stayed on with Bonavia and Mrs Bruce. The arrival of the MoI brought a surge of journalists, writers, officers, film-makers and artists. She was constantly on duty and did not have a day off for three months. Bonavia provided beds for her and Mrs Bruce in the Senate House cellar. The building was a target for the Nazis — Goebbels called it “the Great Lie Factory”. There were many bomb raids. Hunter Dunn recalled: “I’d get under the bedclothes and think, ‘I just hope it will be quick’.”

Kenneth Clark and the fashion editor Ernestine Carter were both to claim that they had introduced Betjeman to Joan and that they had been the first to read the famous poem. In 1995 Joan described to Betjeman’s authorised biographer, Bevis Hillier, what really happened.

“Michael Bonavia summoned me to his room. ‘I’ve got someone here who would like to meet you,’ he said. Inside was John Betjeman, who went down on his knees. I just burst out laughing. My first impression was one of extreme humour. I thought anybody who got down on his knees to say ‘How d’ye do?’ to me must be mad. He asked Mr Bonavia if he could take me to lunch. ‘Certainly,’ he said.”

In a Sunday Times interview of 1965 she told what happened next.
“In the taxi on the way to the restaurant he put a copy of Horizon magazine into my hand and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve written a poem about you.’ I must say I was absolutely overwhelmed. It was such a marvellous break from the monotony of the war. It really was remarkable the way he imagined it all. Actually, all that about the subaltern, and the engagement, is sheer fantasy, but my life was very like the poem.”

A Subaltern’s Love-song appeared in Horizon in February 1941. On January 20, 1945, Hunter Dunn married an MoI civil servant, H. Wycliffe Jackson, in St Mark’s Church, Farnborough, Hampshire. Betjeman was invited but was unable to attend. In September that year he was making last-minute corrections to his slim book of poems, New Bats in Old Belfries, in which it was intended to include A Subaltern’s Love-song. Betjeman and his publishers, John Murray, suddenly realised with horror that the last line of the poem read “And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.” That had terrifying legal implications; but, characteristically, Hunter Dunn, by then Mrs Jackson, made no objection. One person who was slightly upset by the poem was Lady Mary Dunn, daughter of the 5th Earl of Roselyn. In the 1930s Betjeman had proposed to her and been gently turned down; so she thought the love poem referred to her and was crestfallen when she learnt there was a real Joan Hunter Dunn.

Joan Hunter Dunn was born in 1915, the daughter of Dr George Hunter Dunn, a Farnborough GP. As Betjeman recorded in his letter to Gilliat, she was sent to Queen Anne’s, Caversham. She became a boarder there at the age of 6. Her father said: “I’m sending you there to look after your elder sister” (who was already a pupil). After her marriage she went abroad with her husband, who ran an upcountry radio station in Singapore. Three sons were born between 1948 and 1955. By 1962 the boys were at school in England, but the Jackson parents were now in Rhodesia. In that year her husband died of a heart attack. She had to leave Rhodesia, because she could not get access to her money there; in any case, she wanted to be back in England, near her boys. She was very upset that she had to leave her husband’s ashes. Four years later she was reunited with them, and from that point she “began to pull through”. Betjeman, who had kept in touch with her, was a sympathetic adviser to her at this time.

Her main concern, on returning to England, was her sons’ education. She tapped all kinds of trust funds, among them one of the Raja of Sarawak, to pay for them to go to Winchester College, where one of the housemasters, A. H. (“Podge”) Brodhurst, was an old family friend. She also made her boys pick beans in a field near her home in Headley, near Bordon in Hampshire, to ensure that they learnt to make their own financial contribution. She was greatly involved with her local church and to the end of her life she retained a perfect memory for the words and tunes of the Sunday hymns.

In 1996 she suffered a serious burglary while she was out at lunch with a friend. The thieves stole, among much else, a bureau containing all her many letters from Betjeman. They probably threw away the yellowing letters, which were infinitely more valuable than the bureau.

When A Subaltern’s Love-song appeared in New Bats in Old Belfries, it received the kind of review described as “mixed” from G. W. Stonier in the New Statesman. He quoted from the Joan Hunter Dunn poem, commenting: “There is the flavour of keepsake and cartoon, mocking, sentimental, wittily abandoned, giving to the life on our doorstep (or verandah) the charm of a mezzotint. The tennis girl has, of course, other admirers outside the fold: notably Mr Osbert Lancaster and Miss Joyce Grenfell.

“One can imagine the first adding daisies to dropshots, the second retailing to us every monosyllable let fall during those rallies. But of all admirers Mr Betjeman is both the most passionate and the most equivocal. Does he, or doesn’t he care? A very difficult question to answer. Anyway, he must have her in his album, that album in which love-sets and sunsets, chancels and ghosts and Cricklewood laundries, the morning bathe and the evening bell, nestle so surprisingly.”

One feels that Stonier was a latent Betjeman fan; but his direct question can be answered. There is no doubt John Betjeman had a great “crush” on Joan Hunter Dunn; but she stated that he never made anything approaching a pass at her.

Not only was she captivatingly pretty when young — there was something of Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl in her open, riant face — but she was also the embodiment of the England Betjeman loved and celebrated (and sometimes satirised).

She is survived by her three sons.

Joan Jackson, nee Hunter Dunn, the muse of John Betjeman, was born on October 13, 1915.  She died on April 11th 2008, aged 92. Her funeral was at St. Mary Magdalene church in London SW17.

John Betjeman’s unrequited love dies at 92.
She was one of the heroines of modern English poetry. Anyone who has ever heard of John Betjeman has also heard of Joan Hunter Dunn, paragon of all that was desirable about English suburban girls in those distant days of wartime, warm beer and innate sexual reserve.

She really existed, and her death at 92 in a London nursing home on Friday April 11th 2008 closes the last chapter in an intriguing story of unrequited love.

Betjeman first set eyes on her by chance in the corridor of the wartime Ministry of Information in 1938, when he was in the films division and she was on the catering staff.

In fiction she became his fantasy, furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun, a clean-limbed tennis player with whom he sat in the Hillman in the car park after the dance until twenty to one.

The man who would become Poet Laureate wrote his paean in 1941 to a very English beauty in an age when propriety between the sexes served only to heighten imagination and fuel desire. Taking her to the golf club dance resulted in their engagement; that’s how it was in the 1940s.

In real life they knew each other but not apparently, as well as that. Joan was the daughter of a GP from Farnborough, Hampshire. She married a civil servant named Harold Jackson and went to live overseas. When he died and she returned with her three sons to England in 1963, Betjeman made contact with her again. But their relationship appears to have been entirely platonic.

Edward Jackson, her youngest son said : “When we came back to England her overriding concern was to make sure that we boys were all right. She dismissed talk of an affair, always saying, ‘I was in love with Dad.’

“She never said she was proud to be his muse, but she did not consider it a joke. She just said that John was a nice man.”

Betjeman was invited to Joan’s wedding in 1945, and was an occasional lunch guest at the couple’s house before they emigrated to Singapore, and subsequently to Rhodesia.

Bevis Hillier, Betjeman’s biographer and president of the Betjeman Society, interviewed Joan Jackson several years ago.
“She told me that John Betjeman had been so kind to her when her husband died, taking her sons out to lunch and helping to find schools for them in England. She said he was such a gentleman, and there was never any question of him making a pass at her.”

Betjeman was regarded as a shrewd judge of women, knowing which to make advances to and which not. Despite his gently lustful thoughts towards her in 1941, the real Joan Hunter Dunn fell into the latter category. During her life she tended to ignore the fuss about the poem. Yet in an interview she gave in 1965 she spoke glowingly of the moment that Betjeman told her he had written a poem about her, and how the knowledge brightened the drab wartime days.

Joan was an unnoticed figure at Sir John’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1984. The tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice live on in a poem of enduring appeal.

During the late 1990's she invited one of the grandsons of her uncle Ernest to her house in Headley for tea. The idea was that Philip Hunter Dunn would take over Joan's ongoing work on the Hunter Dunn family tree.

John Betjeman is buried at St. Enodoc church near Padstow. The church is inaccessible by road from Rock, but may be approached on foot by crossing St. Endoc golf course. It is a small and exquisite church that has commanding views to the north west, over the river Camel estuary.