First Night Design | A Subaltern’s Love Song — World Poetry Day

Sir John Betjeman in 1961 [Wikimedia]
Sir John Betjeman in 1961 [Wikimedia]

To mark World Poetry Day, here is one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite writers. I dedicate this post to Jane Morley whose recent Thursday’s Doors displayed some wonderfully Gothic arches which John Betjeman would have adored. Jane revealed that her knowledge of Betjeman and his work was severely lacking so I nudged her in what I hope was the right direction.

I have a particular connection to this poem as Miss Joan Hunter Dunn’s father (yes, she was a real girl with a real family) was a Farnborough GP who just happened to deliver my mother in 1922!

Sir John first met Joan Hunter Dunn in 1940 when he was working at the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, which was based at the University of London where Miss Hunter Dunn was working in the canteen.

The poem was published in Cyril Connolly‘s Horizon magazine in February 1941. Betjeman invited her to lunch, and presented her with a copy of the magazine containing the poem, begging her forgiveness. In an interview in The Sunday Times magazine in 1965, illustrated with photographs by Lord Snowdon, she said: “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.” Wikipedia

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.

John Betjeman

Take care and keep laughing!


27 thoughts on “First Night Design | A Subaltern’s Love Song — World Poetry Day

  1. Good morning, Sarah….I love this poem – it evokes times gone by. As soon as I began to read it all my other senses are brought alive. Thank you for this and I love the personal connection….everything is interconnected. Hopefully you are enjoying some sunshine today….a rare commodity here at the moment. Ah well, this too shall pass. Have a lovely day and Easter week ahead. Janet. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The BBC Radio 4 drama this afternooon is a play about a meeting between Elizabeth Bowen and John Betjeman. I was driving and reached my destination before it finished so am going to get it online. It’s called (with startling originality!) Bowen and Betjeman.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Sarah I’ve only just found this and it is truly delightful! You have definitely set me off to explore more of Mr Betjeman – I can just feel the sunshine and smell the scones and jam or is it Robertson’s marmalade ? 🙂 🙂 Many thanks to you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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