Thursday, 11 August 2011

People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts

This little memoir, republished by Slightly Foxed Editions, describes an early twentieth century childhood with great verve and humour.  P.Y. Betts was born in Wandsworth in 1909 and grew up there, in a house on the road between a military hospital and a cemetery and opposite the undertakers; during the First World War her days are punctuated by military funerals.  Feeling a  need to formally acknowledge these, the young Phyllis takes to standing on a street corner and raising her blue woolly hat to the passing corteges.

Betts's memoir is a blend of ironic reflection on her childhood from a considerable perspective - the book was first published in 1989 - and the authentic representation of a child's experience and understanding of her world.  Smells are terribly important; the noxious smell of boiling cats' meat - once experienced, never forgotten - the fusty and unpleasant smell of wool clothing from the days before dry-cleaning; the clean, soapy smell of a successful washing day, her mother's particular passion.  Food is another significant matter; Phyllis is permanently hungry and her mother's insistence on vast quantities of animal fat in her diet does nothing much to assuage this, particularly during the lean years of the War. Her first sustained experience of sugar - shared with her friend Marion and eaten out of a blue bag - makes them "drunk, plain intoxicated with the unaccustomed charge of sugar into the blood.  Phyllis's childish logic helps her puncture the hypocrisy of the adults around her, particularly her maternal grandfather and aunts, who live in upper-middle-class splendour not far away.  Politically Liberal, they are intensely socially conservative, and when Phyllis, lost in Wandsworth with her friend Percy, finds her way to their house, they are only briefly admitted before being sent home.  Phyllis detects this is "something to do" with working-class Percy,

Phyllis's father is affectionately portrayed, with his fondness for his felt bootees at the end of the working day, and his agonies when his wife rises at four to get the copper going.  But it is Phyllis's mother, her "brutal parent" with the "radiant smile" who dominates the narrative.  Unimpressed by formal education, a traitor to her class background, and determined to keep all the knives in the house sharp as razors, her child-rearing approach is summarised by Phyllis as "learn-while-you-burn". The world is a hazardous place, and her children need to cope with its dangers from an early age, rather than being sheltered from them.  She brings a lot of the humour to the story, pressing lettuce on Phyllis's tutors to help cure their scurfy eyelids, declaring that "there were no millimetres when I was young", sportingly agreeing to wear a frilly boudoir cap while scrubbing the doorstep in a sacking apron.  But she can be ruthless, too; when Phyllis's brother gets diphtheria, then a notifiable contagious disease, she somehow manages to nurse him at home, despatching Phyllis to her paternal grandparents in Kent where, if she develops the disease, she will be sent to a fever hospital.  Phyllis realises she has been "thrown to the wolves" by her mother.

But her grandparents' cottage is Phyllis's idyll, her place of love and security.  She celebrates her grandfather, a former chef, who always makes sure there is a glow-worm in the posies of flowers he brings his wife, and her cribbage-loving grandmother, who bakes delicious pies to give to a toothless and incomprehensible neighbour, down on his luck.  Her exile from Wandsworth is a golden time: "The lamplight spread a pool of tranquility over the supper table, over the white cloth, the yellow butter, the food illumined as if by some unsought blessing.  I saw the two old worn faces in that blessed light and wanted never to leave them, never to say goodbye."  The title of the book comes from the young Phyllis's realisation that people who say goodbye seldom return, but her memoir preserves all those who disappeared from view in her life.

This is a beautiful book within and without; P.Y. Betts's other book, a novel called French Polish, seems to be very hard to get hold of, unfortunately.  For another perspective on this book, try Simon's review at Stuck-in-a-Book.


  1. Thanks for linking! I loved this book, as you know, and loved reading your thoughts on it.

    Just wondered.. are you, by any chance, going to the Middlebrow Conference in London in Sept?

  2. I loved the book. Is there anything known about her later life. I know that she died somewhere in Wales.