Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn......

Memories came flooding back to me this morning of English lessons in a hot stuffy classroom with huge white-framed windows letting the sun stream through.
The cause?... my reading an article which mentioned the death of the real-life Joan Hunter Dunn who inspired one of John Betjeman’s most famous poems, A Subaltern's Love-Song.
In reality, the lady who provided the inspiration died on April 11, 2008, aged 92.

If, like me, you 'did' Betjeman's poem at school you'll remember the train-like rhythm of the lines..."Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun".
Betjeman first saw her in a canteen while walking down a corridor at the Ministry of Information at London University in December 1940. He discovered that she was a doctor's daughter, and conjured up his reverie about them being affianced and playing tennis together.
After composing the poem Betjeman wrote seeking her permission to publish. On being introduced to her early the following year he went down on his knees - at which she burst out laughing.
Although she and Betjeman met several times, they did not know one another well at the ministry. Yet as the subject of his most evocative poem, Joan Hunter Dunn continued to exercise a powerful influence over his imagination.

He was unable to attend her wedding to Harold Wycliffe Jackson, in January 1945. Since Betjeman was liberal with his affections, speculation about the relationship with his muse persisted over the years, not least when she attended Betjeman's memorial service in 1984. But Joan Jackson took little notice, neither saying she was proud to have become his muse nor considering it a joke.

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.

1. Subaltern: the title given to a young officer in the British Army, below the rank of Captain.
2. Hillman, Rover, Austin: long defunct makes of British cars.


  1. First of all, I love your new fresh spring look! Wow.

    I was not familiar with Joan Hunter Dunn or the poem. It has a lovely rhythm. Interesting about the muse.

    Okay, I'll join you in going insane politely.

  2. I am in tears! Talk about memories! I have not heard Miss Joan Hunter Dunn recited for years. And here it is for me to enjoy and recall a Major, serving many moons ago (the 70s)in the Anglian Regiment in Catterick (Camp as it was then) Garrison now, reciting this over and over again to we plebs at the Cary Theatre, after rehearsals.
    Thank you!

  3. I'm now only a quiet fan from the distant curtain peering into your oh so delightfully English memories of a youth's fantasies filled with the romantic rhyming schemes of a subaltern's love song. ;~P

  4. Im hoping your tears were happy tears Bee. Ahhh Catterick Garrison, such fond memories.........smiling.

  5. Familiar with the poet, but not the poem.
    I would say the boy WAS smitten!
    "And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.."
    I really like his invention. Now the cars I do know. I attend several large British car shows each year. I like the Hillmans, but my heart's desire is a Morris Minor.

  6. It's interesting how some poems from school remain in our heads for years.
    She was a beautiful muse, that Miss J. Hunter Dunn.
    I enjoyed this line:"How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won".

  7. Tears for a bygone era when youth was on my side!!!
    I have fond and not so fond memories of Catterick which was our base between postings and in 2006, after 23 years, I spent a weekend in Richmond/Catterick on a real dose of nostalgia!! Quite exhausting!

    I was driving to Port of Spain yesterday morning and I saw a Hillman!!! Beat that!