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.


A Subaltern’s Love Song is one of those poems by John Betjeman that evokes that lost middle class world of the interwar years. Rather like Indoor Games Near Newbury which I described several months ago here, Betjeman describes the big country houses, the gravelled drives and narrow lanes, the old motor cars and the carefree youth of a generation that has all but gone now.

Indoor Games Near Newbury was about Christmas, but this one is about summer: the languid afternoons, afternoon tea, private tennis courts, verandahs, gin and lime; and the remarkable amazon that captivates the writer who is happy to be soundly beaten and outplayed by a beautiful athlete.

And look at that penultimate stanza: –

Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,

she’s in the driver’s seat! This modern woman has driven him to the golf club party and they now have the roof up too! The car is described as a Hillman so it’s not unreasonable to assume that it’s the 3 litre 6 cyclinder Hillman Hawk.

(Photo by Steve Glover)

Have you ever noticed there’s a widely held assumption that poetry somehow represents the truth? Perhaps it’s because poems are often written in the first-person and deal with sensitive or emotive subjects we too readily assume that the author is faithfully recounting feelings or situations they have experienced. On the other hand, poetry might just be another genre of fiction.

On this occasion I guess we’re in the realm of creative non-fiction, or speculative history. Yes, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn was real but no, she barely knew John Betjeman let alone became engaged to him as the poem implies.

Betjeman had only encountered Joan in passing. In 1941 he was working in the Film Division of the Ministry of Information in the building where Joan worked in the catering section. One day he asked her boss if he could take Joan away from her work and out to lunch, and it was at this lunch that he showed her the poem that had just been published in a literary magazine and bashfully apologised for the liberty he had taken with her name and reputation.

It turned out that Betjeman had captured her character as a sporting type quite accurately. Joan was the daughter of a GP and at school had been a tennis player, captain of the lacrosse team, and school captain. In this old school photo she’s standing on the right.

Betjeman was relieved to discover that Joan took it all in good fun, and she actually invited him to her wedding when she married some years later in 1945. She said in an interview during the 60s that the poem was a welcome escape from the terrors and stress of the nightly bombing raids on London and although the amorous subaltern was a fiction, the rest of the narrative was not far from what her pre-war life had been like.

Joan married Harold Jackson, a civil servant rather than an army officer, in 1945 in Farnborough and accompanied her husband to Malaya after the war, where he ran a radio station. They then lived in Singapore, before returning to the UK in 1957. Harold worked for ITV and then for the BBC in Rhodesia, but died of a heart attack in 1963. Joan returned to England a few years later where she lived until her own death in 2008 aged 92.

Sir John Betjeman became Poet Laureate in 1971 and died in 1984. He remained friends with Joan and they would meet from time to time for lunch or dinner. Although he had been unable to attend her wedding in 1945 because of another engagement, she did attend the memorial service for him at Westmister Abbey in 1994.