Literary feuds are always great fun for the spectators, non more so that between John Betjeman’s biographers Bevis Hillier and A N Wilson. Yesterday, in The Sunday Times Hillier put his hand up and admitted what we all “knew”, that he was the author of the hoax that fooled Wilson.
The review pages of British newspapers and magazines are fertile ground for this sort of thing as writers are frequently asked to review books by their rivals. They return favours to their friends (those who have given them good reviews or they drank with at a literary party last week) and attack others.
To recap, Wilson received by post a love letter supposedly written by Betjeman. He used it in his new biography of the poet not realising that the first letters of the sentences spelled out, “A N Wilson is a shit.”
In 2002 Wilson had reviewed the second volume of Hiller’s biography in The Spectator saying it was “a hopeless mishmash of a book… Some reviewers would say it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together.”
A paragraph in the Biteback column, also in yesterday’s Sunday Times, provides a footnote. The letter accompanying the fake that flopped through Wilson’s letter box was signed “Eve de Haren”. That is an anagram for “Ever been had”.
Across the Atlantic the New York Times enjoyed the story as much as anyone but needed to add a note for its puzzled readers: “In Britain it is not considered a conflict of interest for writers to review works by direct competitors.”
And they have a point. If this sort of thing went on in the City pages, PC Plod would be taking away computers and checking mobile phone accounts. Perhaps we need a new regulator, OFBOOK perhaps, to ensure fair play.