FROM THE PULPIT
P ATRICK F RENCH TINKERTY-TONK!
released from a Soviet gulag, wrote solving a quandary I had raised in the text. I had a telephone call from the police saying that a giant bronze bust of Younghusband had been stolen from the Royal Geographical Society, and
A M I ALONE in suffering from literary synaesthesia? When I think of Bevis Hillier, which is not often, I have an image of the cartoon Beavis with his savage underbite and low snicker, rather than a smock-clad pauper. D J Enright I always pictured spinning discs alongside Tony Blackburn. The name A N Wilson conjures up… not Butthead, or Leavis, but Beverley Nichols – though not Nichols himself but the evocation of him by Graham Greene when he wrote, ‘For all I know Beverley Nichols may be a middle aged and maiden lady … connected in some way with the Church: I would hazard a guess that she housekeeps for her brother who may be a canon or perhaps a rural dean.’ Wallace Arnold may be to blame for this. Writing in these pages many years ago, he identified A N Wilson as Ann Wilson, a charlady who later metamorphosed into a lesbian writer of the old school. I had no reason to disbelieve Mr Arnold; I thought he himself was real. Only much later, seeing A N Wilson’s photograph alongside his column in the London Evening Standard, did I realise I had been had. Although he sported the jacket-and-tie look favoured by Radclyffe Hall, A N Wilson was clearly a man. How was Wilson taken in by his rival biographer Bevis Hillier’s hoax letter, which purported to be from John Betjeman to a lover? It arrived out of the blue, was typed rather than holograph, contained an acrostic of Wilson’s name followed by what the New York Times daintily termed ‘a vulgarity’, and was from a woman with an odd name (an anagram of ‘ever been had’) who did not live at the implausible address she claimed to be writing from. I belong to the minority of Literary Reviewreaders who do not view Betjeman as the most amusing man who ever lived, so the precise significance of the material eluded me. Housekeeping for his or her brother while turning out a book every few months, Wilson must be busier or more trusting than other biographers. Perhaps he thought such a short letter could not have been written by Bevis Hillier. While researching the life of V S Naipaul I have received two typed-out renditions of his letters, and was suspicious of both. The first I returned because it contained a mistake, and Naipaul does not tend to make mistakes in his writing, but later took it as authentic when it came back corrected. The second I doubted – I assumed something had been cut – but accepted when it appeared in a book with his imprimatur. It would be a brave biographer who said he had never been hoaxed, particularly by a self-regarding interviewee – it would be like a doctor saying he had never killed a patient. After publishing a biography of the explorer Francis Younghusband in 1994, I received some odd letters. A woman wrote offering me a day out at a health spa in exchange for an after-dinner speech. An English ‘Krishna adept’ calling himself Mathura Das, who said he had been
asking me to help identify obsessives who might be behind the theft. A man wrote from High Wycombe inviting me to stay, and enclosed train timetables, but told me I would only be welcome if I arrived with shorts and gymshoes. Of the three letters, only the first was a hoax; the phone call was genuine. A consortium exists in Hayling Island which has the express purpose of fooling biographers. Responding to a plea for information from the biographer of the traitor William Joyce, a Dr Cromsley Gerund wrote saying he had operated on Joyce’s nose in 1934 but left him with a septal haematoma – hence the pronounced nasal tone and the nickname Lord Haw-Haw. When Neil Kinnock’s biographer (yes) advertised in Private Eyefor observations and anecdotes, Dr Gerund obliged with a story about seeing him stabbing a badger with a serrated carvingknife in a gravelled lay-by near Betws-y-Coed. Mrs Grace Enervee wrote describing a rowdy after-dinner speech during which Kinnock had imitated Margaret Thatcher ‘having derriere conjunctions with Ken Livingstone’. More gently, June Article related a heart-warming story of Neil Kinnock dislodging a football from a tree for her daughter, despite his busy schedule. Lex Clifford had seen him alone on a beach in Spain, ‘polishing like merry fury’. As for P C L R Kuttle MA (Oxon), a retired schoolmaster, he wrote only to say how impressed he had been to hear Kinnock recite Kipling’s If to a group of shoppers in a local town after the loss of the 1992 general election: ‘I could have closed my eyes and mistaken him for Olivier in his magisterial pomp.’ So far as I know, none of these stories ever made it into print. If only the correspondents of Hayling Island had thought to write to A N Wilson; or perhaps they did. In my last book, Tibet, Tibet, I tried hoaxing myself. It was a gesture against the tyranny of footnotes in contemporary publishing, which have spread even as the need for references has declined with the arrival of the Internet. Notes are often a form of boasting – a bulky, cod-academic apparatus designed to intimidate the reviewer and suggest knowledge. Convinced that nobody ever reads them, I added a transparently bogus note in the hope that someone would spot it and question me. Although my book has been out for three years and was published in about a dozen editions internationally, nobody has noticed. The hoax citation ran, in full: ‘Hungerwood, Dennis P, Early Tibetan Inscriptions on Hedge Sacrifice, Novzhgyet Teklat Insteur, Bishkek Dot, Vol 19, Spring 1977, pp117–139.’ How would a Tibetan sacrifice a hedge? I leave that to A N Wilson to answer. Tinkerty-tonk!
LITERARY REVIEW October 2006