Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Breaking the Code of the Betjeman Hoax

You probably read about the Betjeman hoax in the front page of today's NYT arts section.

To be duped into printing a made-up love letter in your latest biography is bad enough. But to discover that the ersatz document is actually a very rude insult aimed specifically at you: that is a rare kind of humiliation.

It happened recently to A. N. Wilson, one of London’s most visible and waspish literary figures, in “Betjeman” (Hutchinson), his book about the British poet laureate John Betjeman, who died in 1984. The document was a steamy letter purporting to be from Mr. Betjeman to a friend named Honor Tracy, and Mr. Wilson used it as evidence that the two had a passionate, if brief, affair.

But as it turns out, the first letters of each sentence, except the first, spell out an insulting sentence that starts with Mr. Wilson’s name and ends with a vulgarity.

(Let's take a moment to giggle at the use of "waspish" as a euphemism for "bitchiest queen in academia.")

We're here, we're waspish, get used to it

Or, from this Guardian article: "the capital letters at the start of each sentence spell out 'A N Wilson is a shit'."

Well, no they don't. Take a look.

What the letters spell out is






I italicized the H and the JB because I'm not totally sure they should be included in the code (they're not the first letters of sentences, but they're capitalized because of the format of the letter).

I also included punctuation. I think the 'I's make the most sense as Roman numeral headings, so that the DH and the AJB have some significance I'm not aware of. The main suspect for the hoax is AN Wilson's scholarly rival Bevis Hillier (could that name sound any more like a Harry Potter character, like some fey wizard who lives under a hill and is a little too touchy-touchy with the kids?), who denies involvement while in the same breath taking the opportunity to publicly call Wilson "despicable." Perhaps the DH and the AJB are initials for other people in academia or Wilson's life?

Or maybe they're not Roman numerals. Could they be another anagram? The letters are either DIIIA or DHIIIAJB. Could it be "HID A BJ II"? As in, "hid a blowjob, too"? I really can't speak to the scholarship of this interpretation, but from a strict codebreaking perspective, it seems valid.

Or let's see... "I HAD, I JIB" or "I BID A HI." None of these are as tempting or meaningful (to me, at least) as the promise of a hidden blowjob, but I leave it to you, the readers, to decide.

In any event, this was an incredibly elaborate hoax that required lots of planning and convoluted execution, so I doubt that these extra letters are mere extra letters. You don't go to all that effort without making the code neat and perfect. The "extra" letters are probably the real clues to the perpetrator's identity.

As an afterthought, I just wanted to include this bit of Wilson nastiness during the Wilson/Hillier scholarly feud (which resulted from Wilson nastily reviewing Hillier's Bettjeman bio, which he had spent 25 years assiduously researching and which was commissioned by the man himself, followed up by Wilson pooping a bio out in one year at exactly the time Hillier's life work was to be released, and then Wilson getting a bigger advance for it and piggybacking on Hillier's publicity):

In 2004 Mr. Wilson — an unusually prolific author, who in the last few years has a produced a book a year — wrote a column in The Daily Telegraph ridiculing a Betjeman biographer who, he said, had been plaguing Mr. Wilson over a poor review. He didn’t name the person, but it was clear he was referring to Mr. Hillier, since there were no other Betjeman biographers on hand at the time

In an apparent reference to Mr. Hillier’s living in a converted almshouse, Mr. Wilson wrote, “How utterly pitiable to be some old bachelor in a Hiram’s Hospital, smock-clad like a pauper in the reign of Henry VIII, dripping resentment like the dottle from a smelly churchwarden’s pipe, and with so little in his life that he has to worry his sad old head about a book review.”

I believe the kids would call that a LOL.

I don't know why (since if I ever write a bio it will surely be in the Wilsonian not Hillierian cast), but I am sympathetic to Hillier's plight (perhaps I realize that my future, too, is in an almshouse, converted or not converted). If it was he who did the hoax, it was a hoax of brilliant simplicity in that it made his argument so succinctly: Wilson is a hack scholar who doesn't check his sources and has, essentially, no scholarly credibility.

If someone includes in his putatively authoritative biography of a recently deceased poet a letter from a stranger without the meagerest attempts at verification, and then draws conclusions about the poet's life from the mystery letter, that biographer does not in fact have any authority. Whatever Wilson is, he is not a scholar. He is perhaps a Christopher Hitchens witticist/polemicist, but not a scholar.

My friend who first showed me the article thought Wilson came off very gracefully in the aftermath, while Hillier just seemed tragic and bitter. Perhaps, but Wilson will also never be taken quite so seriously as a scholar.

Anyhow, what I really want to know is: any further thoughts on the extra bits of code?


  • At 7:26 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Looking at the letter again, there are some very strange phrases in the letter (always a clue when dealing with codes), such as "Romaunt of the Rose".

    If you take all the capitalized letters, aside from AN WILSON IS A SHIT, you get


    That's a lot of letters, with lots of anagrammatic possibilities. All those consonants would certainly explain the need for the extra Is at the end.

    I have to leave the library now, but I'll jot it down and work on the anagrams on the train.

  • At 2:55 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    I did not in fact work this out on the train.

    I lost interest shortly after writing this post.

    Which means that, gumshoes, it's still out there for you to crack.

  • At 2:56 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    (as if anyone cares about the London literati any longer. Pshaw, I say. Pshaw.)

  • At 3:04 AM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I tried. I plugged those letters into an anagramming program. Nothing interesting came up. That was the extent of my interest too.

    Maybe if I had any idea who any of these people were.


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