John Scott Masthead
February 2 2011 at 07:56

Sorry that Jean Moorcoft Wilson didn't join the fashion stakes at Saturday's J&B Met.

Who she? you may ask.

Dr Wilson is a feisty little lady in her mid-seventies, a lecturer at Birbeck College, University of London, whose packed audiences applauded her every time she appeared in a different hat and outfit while delivering a series of UCT summer school lectures on selected 20th century poets last week.

Hats are her signature tune. At home she has hundreds. "You should see her hallway," says her friend Ingrid de Kok, the poet, who as Ingrid Fisk is professor of extra-mural studies. "You can't move for hats."

For WB Yeats on Monday she wore a black and yellow affair, with matching ensemble. A terrible beauty wasn't born at all. Instead it was quite fetching.

On Tuesday, to honour TS Eliot, she wore a lime-green hat with an equally lime-green gown. Her appreciative audience wouldn't calm down.

"I realise this is a buzz of intellectual excitement," she quipped.

TS Eliot was also keen on hats, an American who tried to be more formally English than the English. But he never quite got it right, and became severely embarrassed on being told you didn't raise your hat to a sentry at Kensington Palace, which he did.

On Wednesday Wilson congratulated everyone on returning for more, having endured Eliot whom she found "difficult", but I thought she was best of all while discussing him, enabling me to understood him better than I did as an undergraduate 50 years ago.

Her third poet was the prune-faced WH Auden, whom she had met as a young woman. He would have been pleased to see her this time in a broad-brimmed grey hat festooned with a big red rose and other blooms, set off by a dark-blue dress with a plunging V neckline, which was clearly more daring than the outfit worn by "Miss Gee", the subject of one of Auden's poems: "She'd a velvet hat with trimmings, and a dark grey serge costume."

Not that Dr Wilson spends a lot on clothing. She confided to me she got most of it from Oxfam and was handy with a sewing needle.

She also did Dylan Thomas on Wednesday, and proudly announced that she had delayed labour so that one of her sons could be born on Thomas's birthday. Another son was born on the birthday of Wilfred Owen, the war poet.

Wilson's husband, now aged 90, is a nephew of Bloomsbury Group member Leonard Woolf, founder of the Hogarth Press and husband of novelist Virginia Woolf.

Her Thursday lecture on Philip Larkin was conducted in a black hat with green and blue trimming, and a royal blue dress with a black bodice. It elicited even more applause than the previous creations.

She turned up for tea on Friday morning in a black hat with a brilliant green feather boa and an equally bright green tightly-ruched dress with padded shoulders. I warned her that this time she would receive a standing ovation. Half-an-hour later her audience didn't stand, but added prolonged cheers to their clapping.

And when she had finished with Seamus Heaney, the last of the poets, they did indeed stand and applaud for several minutes. "If I had the right skirt on I would curtsey," she replied graciously, when she could finally be heard.

But this outfit was simply too tight to bend in. 


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