Did Sir John's daughter kick off a major literary feud?

Shop opening: Candida Lycett Green in Uffington this February

Shop opening: Candida Lycett Green in Uffington this February

First published in Gray Matter by

Cancer claimed another high-profile victim last week with the death, aged 71, of writer Candida Lycett Green, the devoted daughter of Sir John Betjeman and another brave campaigner on behalf of our architectural heritage.

Though I never met her (as I did her father), I was peripherally involved in a notable literary spat between two of Sir John’s biographers that she may have triggered, if only by accident.

After Bevis Hillier published the first book in his three-volume official life, Mrs Lycett Green expressed disapproval of “the little man’s criticisms of my dad”. When book two appeared in 2002, to near-general acclaim, her friends Richard Ingrams and A.N. Wilson both went on the attack. Wilson called it “an uncooked dinner slapped down unappetisingly in front of you”.

Writing in this column, I noted these suspiciously dissenting voices and how they seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Hillier read and approved of the article. He, too, smelt a rat.

Mrs Lycett Green’s antipathy towards the biography evidently evaporated, for she and husband Rupert were present (as I was) at the launch party for volume three.

But the feud between Wilson and Hillier continued. Its culmination came in 2006 with the publication of Wilson’s own (one-volume) biography of the former Poet Laureate.

It contained a spoof love-letter, planted by Hillier, amorously linking Betjeman with one Eve de Harben — which crossword solvers might recognise as an anagram of “Ever been had”.

The letter was printed in full in Wilson’s Betjeman (Hutchinson), with no one having noticed that the first letters of each of its sentences spelled out a message: “A.N. Wilson is a s**t.”

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