“Not only England, but every Englishman is an island.”
—Friedrich von Hardenberg
John Betjeman’s evocative and educative television programs and his uniquely readable poetry have left an indelible image in the British public mind—of a jolly, witty, and eccentric man, ambling around Britain’s cities and countryside, pointing out hitherto unnoticed details of hitherto underappreciated buildings and excoriating the dreadful devastation caused by town planners for whom anything old was axiomatically inferior. Betjeman’s frequent media appearances, with his trademark crumpled mac, battered hat, and plastic bag; his confessional interviews and articles; his patent kindliness; and his ability to laugh at himself left many Britons with the impression that they knew Betjeman personally. He was a kind of national favorite uncle (albeit one with teeth infamously “covered in green slime” and a “pong” caused by his dislike of bathing).
The publication of Andrew Norman Wilson’s long-anticipated biography of this popular figure was overshadowed by the revelation that rival biographer Bevis Hillier had hoaxed Wilson into including a love-letter purportedly written by Betjeman. The letter was cleverly written—but, taken together, the capital letters at the beginning of...