Continuing something of a theme, tonight I’ll be writing about P.Y. Betts’ People Who Say Goodbye, no.13 in the Slightly Foxed Editions series, and kindly sent to me by the lovely people at Slightly Foxed. This series of reprints seems to be mostly – perhaps wholly? – devoted to memoirs, and limited editions of 2000 of each are printed. Indeed, some have sold out completely, and others have fewer than a hundred copies left – and they are so beautiful that I at least now have a hunger to own the lot.
People Who Say Goodbye was originally published in 1989 by Souvenir Press, when I was three and the author was eighty – and looks back over the first couple of those eight decades, giving a rich and quirky vision of her childhood. Slightly Foxed Editions republished it earlier this year. Betts was apparently a successful writer in the 1930s, contributing to Graham Greene’s ‘prestigious but short-lived magazine Night and Day’, according to Hazel Wood in her preface. It is perhaps odd that she should return to the literary world fifty years later with a childhood memoir, but I’m very glad that she did – for no other justification need be given for her expecting the reading public to care about her childhood than that she has written about it in an entirely engaging, amusing, and refreshingly unmournful and unsentimental manner.
Phyllis Betts’ childhood in Wandsworth, South London is essentially an ordinary one – made historically extraordinary by having been lived through World War One. One of the most touching and amusing moments in this memoir comes after the war, when Phyllis and a friend are given a bag of sugar – long scarce – and head off to the woods to eat it, laughing hysterically after they have done so. It is moments like this which punctuate People Who Say Goodbye – keenly remembered moments of childhood which are not earth-shattering, but are a delight to read.
Phyllis Betts’ parents are a little unconventional, ignoring protocol and society a lot of the time (Phyllis had to attend a new school in her old gym uniform, for instance, since her mother couldn’t see the economic sense in changing it simply to fit in) and she has a wide range of relatives who shuttle on and off the page at various junctures.
But the ‘plot’, if one can have a plot in a memoir, is not what appeals – it is Betts’ voice throughout. If she reminded me of anyone, it was Barbara Comyns. No writer I’ve encountered understands the child’s perspective as well as Comyns did – with all its unpredictability, callousness, and odd humour. Well, Betts’ is a close second, remembering her own childhood and childlike voice so perfectly (one assumes) that this never feels as though it were written by an eighty year-old. Not that it is written with childish naivety and ignorance, as Emma Smith’s excellent memoir The Great Western Beach was – rather we see the world through a child’s surreal vantage, without forfeiting the knowledge and perspective of adulthood. It’s difficult to define, but it certainly works wonderfully well. To show you what I mean, especially in terms of the Comyns connection, I’d better just give a few examples… here are three from various points of the books:
‘People like to hear about other people going mad. It sort of cheers them up that it is not yet Madday for them.’
‘She was a dedicated Fabian and looked the part, with her serious grey eyes, wide intellectual forehead and her air of a pained saint always looking for the good in people and not finding much.’
* * *
Brattle Place was not, of course, the only place that I had been to for holidays. By the time I was six I had been to a number of different places and, by a coincidence that struck me as marvellous, they all began with a B: Broadstairs, Bournemouth, Brattle Place, Barton, Bagnor and Bexhill. For ages I had known the alphabet with its twenty-six letters, and as the tally of holiday places mounted, all beginning with B, the same as our surname, my sense of wonder increased. There were plenty of other places where people went for holidays, no farther away – Eastbourne, Ramsgate, Hastings, Torquay – yet all the places we went to began with B. The improbability of the thing hinted at the intellectual beauty of mathematics and engrossed me with a sense of the marvellous.
Betts often throws out all sorts of tid-bits which make me want to know more, and then sidles away from them with the insouciance of any raconteur who knows how to keep the audience wanting more, rather than bored by detail. She mentions the Isle of Wight – where, she had heard, ‘you could never be more than four miles from the sea, yet in the paper recently there had been a bit about an old lady, well into her eighties, who had lived on the island all her life but had never set eyes on the sea.’ Is this true? Why? How could anybody not be filled with curiosity at this! More personally to Betts is the question of her brother. Early in the novel she declares that she will barely write about her brother, since he wouldn’t want to be included (how like Barbara Comyns, who did the same with one of her sisters in Sisters By A River) and she is true to her word. Only occasionally is he mentioned, and she quietly says at one point that he ‘grew away from her’. How terribly, terribly sad – but left barely spoken, on the page. Betts gives the most extraordinary details and memories all over the place – the minutiae that children notice and remember – but in a strange way she is also reticent.
There is plenty to laugh at in the book, which, although it couldn’t be called a comic memoir, certainly makes use of humour along the way. One of the moments I’m sure I’ll remember involved Phyllis’ desperate hunt to find gifts for her relatives, invariably without success or receiving gratitude:
“… and she gave me a china dog,” exclaimed Aunt Ada in bitterness to my mother… “a china dog not fit to put in a servant’s bedroom”.
This remark, repeated at home by my injured mother, became a family catchphrase. Anything disliked or rejected, be it a pair of scuffed tennis shoes, a note sung flat, or a lump of unchewable gristle, was thereafter described as being ‘not fit to put in a servant’s bedroom’.
Isn’t that lovely? Family catchphrases are always enchanting to share (ours include such strange things as ‘it’s always the nose’, ‘HEAVY BOOTS’, and the mouthful ‘not as nice as you possibly could be if you tried your very hardest) although it is difficult to write much about them without leaving the reader feeling left out – it is one of Betts’ merits that the reader feels rather part of the family, or at least an accepted guest.
Lurking behind this unsentimental, energetic childhood memoir is, however, a sadness – the inevitable sadness of nostalgia, perhaps. Towards the end of People Who Say Goodbye, Betts includes a conversation which explains the title. She is talking to Clement, an unconventional boy with whom she has struck up a friendship. He is the first to speak in this excerpt:
“Will you be coming back to see us?”
“I shouldn’t think so. In a way I should like to but the way things are I don’t expect I shall.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve seen that people who come to say goodbye usually don’t come back.”
“When did you begin to notice this?”
“It came on gradually, from when I was about five right up to now. It’s true, you know.”
“You were young to notice that that is how things are.”
“Fairly young, I suppose, yes.”
“Do you remember the people who don’t come back?”
“Yes. I remember them all.”
“Will you remember me?”
“Of course I shall. If I live to be eighty I shall still remember you here playing the piano – playing ‘The Dance of the Blessed Spirits.’.”
It is probably a fanciful recollection of eighty-year old Phyllis which puts the age ‘eighty’ into the mouth of the child Phyllis – but that doesn’t affect the sadness of this belief, created in the maelstrom of war with the soldiers who came to say goodbye and never returned.
I don’t think I’d have chosen quite such a sombre title for the memoir. These people, who say goodbye, are certainly present in the book – but there is so much more. Who knows what happened to most of the figures in the book. I don’t even know what happened to Betts after she became an adult – there is no mention in the memoir, as though childhood were hermetically sealed, revisited now without any acknowledged link to what happened afterwards. And that is what comes most to the fore of People Who Say Goodbye – not the people who say goodbye, but the person to whom it was said. Betts’ memoir is not only a very honest and perceptive book about childhood, it is honest and perceptive about a real individual child – a much rarer quality.
I am indebted to Slightly Foxed for sending me a copy, and Lyn for telling me about it in the first place. Click on her name there to go over to the wonderful review she wrote in May. And then go and get a copy of this wonderful little book!