Mark Mason

The wisdom of youth

‘You must write it all down’ is the age-old plea to elderly relatives about their childhood memories.

The wisdom of youth
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People Who Say Goodbye

P.Y. Betts

Slightly Foxed, pp. 312, £

‘You must write it all down’ is the age-old plea to elderly relatives about their childhood memories.

‘You must write it all down’ is the age-old plea to elderly relatives about their childhood memories. Fortunately P. Y. Betts, briefly a novelist in the 1930s, was 50 years later persuaded to do just that. Even more fortunately, her memories, now republished, are golddust.

Betts was born in Wandsworth in 1909, meaning that many of the ‘people who say goodbye’ were saying hello to the trenches. Also, several of her childhood friends died of now treatable diseases. Today’s publishers would at this point scream ‘misery memoir’, others would retaliate that people back then had more backbone, but Betts herself refuses either cliché, aware — complicated, perceptive woman that she is — that the truth is always more complicated.

Sadness hangs over the book without suffocating it. A friend’s mother has eyes that are ‘angry yet questing, as if ransacking each arriving minute for its expected load of misery’. Much of the time comedy comes to the fore. The landlady of the Kent boarding house where Betts’s family spend their holidays has a protuding lower jaw: ‘she could have rooted for truffles’. Aunt Ethel looks ‘like Lord Longford in drag’. Faced with Belgian visitors who speak no English, Betts’s mother says repeatedly that her husband speaks excellent French but won’t be home until eight, tapping her wristwatch for emphasis, a sign that has the Belgians rising to their feet and her mother pushing them back down again.

Betts’s novelist skills show through in her phrasing — clothes on a washing line ‘beat out a rhythm like a dog being sick’ — and also her eye for period details: kitchens never had sinks (‘connotations of drains and sludge’), the menopause was ‘the change of life’, and young officers kicked their caps around to achieve ‘that chic used look’.

But the book’s real joy lies in her observations about people and the lives they lead. Some thoughts, she admits, have occurred only in retrospect, such as that about the happiness of a new couple in the neighbourhood (‘honeymoon electricals’). Most, however, were noted at the time, making her a very insightful child. ‘People of idealistic left-wing tendencies,’ she writes, ‘did not seem to enjoy food much, let alone provide it for others.’ When an adult asks why the war has to happen, Betts thinks to herself:

The purpose of war was to kill as many of the enemy as possible so that you could take whatever they had that you wanted. It was so obvious. Yet grown-ups were always asking each other what war was for. They should know by now.

The key relationship is with her mother, a difficult sort who operates a ‘learn as you burn’ policy on health and safety, and refuses to send Betts and her brother to school, as education tends to ‘unfit children for life’. Reading her daughter’s brilliantly moving and funny book, you can’t help feeling she had a point.