Who was Betty?

In the north of England, Bettys Cafés1 are famous — indeed, they are celebrated.  Well-known people such as Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, James Herriott and Ian McMillan have all sung the praises of Bettys. and Alan Bennett has namechecked the Harrogate café in one of his wonderful plays.

Bettys is celebrated because it’s good: “the nearest thing that Yorkshire can do to produce one of those lovely continental pastry shops … But more than that, it caters for the northern appetite, which is very, very important, and offers value for money. High tea –- that is a very northern thing. And it’s getting better and better — their cakes are lovely and it is very well done. It is elegance at its best –- you have your little tea strainer, your pot, your lovely cake stand and I think it is beautiful. The staff are very courteous and it suits the smart town of Harrogate.” 2

But who was Betty? My family was closely involved in the creation of the cafés in their early days (there are now six of them, all in Yorkshire), but since no-one seems to know about this let me tell you what I can and who I think Betty actually was.

According to the official version of the story Frederick Belmont, a baker and confectioner, arrived as an emigré from Switzerland in 1919 speaking little English, and somehow found himself in Bradford. He liked the Yorkshire countryside and decided to stay and start his own shop in Harrogate, which became the first Bettys.  Since then it has gone from strength to strength. So the tale goes, but in fact Mr Belmont had a partner: my grandfather, who bore the illustrious name of John Smith.3

How this began I know only in bits and pieces from what my mother told me. She was proud of having been involved in the formative years of Bettys and often boasted about it.  To her it was always ‘our firm’.  She had spent her childhood in the village of Laycock, where my grandfather had a small farm and owned the village bakery. He probably had other business interests in the area too. By all accounts he was a very kind chap, a good man to do business with. He was certainly very kind to me as a child. Anyway, at some point he met Freddie Belmont and they evidently hit it off, becoming partners soon afterwards. To him Mr Belmont was ‘Binkie’ by analogy with the theatrical impresario Binkie Beaumont who was well-known at the time. Binkie Belmont married a local girl who was known to them as Bunny.  Binkie and Bunny.

As Bettys prospered the Smith family moved into a spacious house in Harrogate, where my mother spent her teenage years. She told me that she accompanied her father on scouting expeditions for new premises for Bettys and, once they were established, helped out as a waitress and in the kitchens during the school holidays. Among her effects after her death I found a bound carbon-copy of the original Bettys recipe book, which she used from time to time when making cakes etc. in later life. She kept this in her bedside cabinet and obviously regarded it as very precious.

The original Betty's Cafe (left) and as Bettys today (right)
The original Betty’s Cafe (left) and Bettys today (right)

The Smiths were good friends with the Belmonts as well as business partners, taking several holidays together in Switzerland before the war. On the walls of the house in Harrogate were pictures of the Swiss lakes and mountains — tinted photographs in gilt frames, as was the style of the time — and various souvenirs. One of these particularly delighted me as a child. It was a carved wooden match-holder in the form of a hollow tree-stump with a wolf beside it, a momento of Berne. This eventually came down to me, and it sits on my mantelpiece now.

My mother was very bright, and on leaving school she went to London to work in the Civil Service — but war was looming and the family wanted her back home, so she returned to Harrogate and trained and worked as an accountant, marrying my father during the war and having me when the war was over. My sister followed four years later. We lived first in Wakefield and then in Leeds, and made frequent visits to Harrogate to visit the family there.

On one of these visits I was taken round the Bettys factory by my grandfather — I’d have been 4 or 5 at the time — to see the cakes and sweets being made. Great to have a grandpa with a chocolate factory! but those were less indulgent times and at the end of the tour I was allowed to help myself to just one sweet.

From the same period I also recall a gathering at my grandparents’ house in Harrogate, where I was presented to the assembled Bettys clan. Mr Belmont and his wife were there, of course, and some others too, probably relatives of theirs. My main memory of this is of the ladies present, who all seemed to be dressed in black and lace in a very old-fashioned style, but what really fascinated me as a gawping child was their wobbly double-chins. Too many cream cakes, perhaps! My apologies to their memories.

My grandfather had married a young woman named Elizabeth Gill, a teacher in Keighley. According to family legend he had courted her by walking five miles to chapel every Sunday in the hope of having a few moments with her after the service, then walking the five miles home again afterwards. To him she was Betty; to my mother she was Mum; to me and my sister she was Nana. I can’t be sure, but my mother insisted that she was the Betty after whom the original café had been named, and in the absence of other plausible candidates I think it quite likely.

Sadly, my grandfather died suddenly in 1951 at a relatively young age . There was no-one then to take over from him, as his son (my Uncle Ray) was committed to farming and the outdoor life, while my mother was now married to a clergyman and busy being the minister’s wife, and of course a mother to me and my sister. So the Belmont family bought out my grandmother’s share of Bettys and our connection with the firm ended.

My mother was very regretful about that. The settlement gave us a little nest-egg, certainly, which probably paid for my education, but in later years she would sometimes say ruefully that if my grandfather had lived longer I would have had a secure future with the firm. I wasn’t so sure that I’d have wanted that or been very good at it so I tended to keep quiet at these times, and since Bettys seems to have been extremely well run since then I think it has worked out fine, though I’m sorry that my grandfather has been written out of the firm’s official story when he did so much for it.

As for Betty herself, I have been greatly amused by the speculation as to what she was really like — there has even been a book about her 4 — but I can tell you what our Betty, my grandmother, was like. She was not at all the buxom, rosy-cheeked lass that some have imagined her to be, but a tall, slender, extremely intelligent and sophisticated woman. Photographs of her taken in the 1920s show a very cool presence, elegantly gowned and hair shingled.

John and Betty Smith

She occasionally smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, a rather superior brand, and spoke fluent French. She was very kind and generous, though she would stand for no nonsense, and she was modest, never wanting any publicity as the ‘real’ Betty. She would have considered that vulgar.

I knew her well, as she came to live with us after my grandfather’s death and continued to do so until her own death many years later, and I came to love her dearly.  When I was young she helped me with my homework and let me watch cartoons on TV, which my parents disapproved of.  When I was a music-mad teenager I built a super-powerful hi-fi from kits and bits of wood that I salvaged from here and there, but the one thing I couldn’t make was a turntable. Nana kindly stumped up for a very good one, and the completed sound system annoyed the neighbours for years afterwards.

My last memory of her is from Christmas 1967, when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was first aired. She had a colour TV in her room and we had only a black-and-white one, so the whole family gathered in Nana’s room to watch it in colour. When it was done she said “Well, I didn’t think much of that.”   A blunt Yorkshirewoman to the end.

1  The name was originally Betty’s but the apostrophe was dropped somewhere along the way.
2  Quotation from a comment by Frances Atkins on the Bettys website: https://www.bettys.co.uk/timeline
3  No connection with the brewery of that name. My family were all staunch Methodists.
4  Who Was Betty? A Whimsical Collection of Tall Stories edited by Samantha Gibson (2011)

 

What’s going on

As I write this the TV is showing pictures of the demonstrations in London, the cameras hunting about for outbreaks of violence and destruction that they can show on the news later. This is in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis three weeks ago and here in Britain the toppling and proposed removal of several statues of notable men deemed to have been racist and Not OK in various other ways.

That black lives matter I take as obvious, self-evident, a no-brainer. Of course they matter, as all lives do, but some black writers are saying things like “If I hear one more white person say ‘Black Lives Matter’ I think my head will explode,” * so I won’t bang on about my own patchy white-bred credentials in this regard, though I hope one day to be able tell you about my experiences when helping to run an adventure playground in Notting Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, which proved to be a very practical education in racial tensions and much more complex than I’d ever imagined.

Have things changed since then? Check out this song from 1971, with a new video made last year, here.

About the statues I was undecided at first. I understand the argument that removing them can be seen as erasing history, destroying our heritage etc., but I also understand that some people find them very offensive, and I personally don’t particularly want to gaze on the features of Cecil Rhodes or Edward Colston — though one of my fondest memories is of bunking off school to go to a concert by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Colston Hall in Bristol — an event fraught with ironies in retrospect. Maybe they can change the name and keep the hall.

I live most of the time in London but at the moment I’m taking a break in Dorset after two months of lockdown, and a couple of miles down the road there’s been a kerfuffle about the statue of Baden-Powell that stands on Poole Quay. It’s there because Brownsea Island is just offshore in the harbour, and this is where Baden-Powell (B-P) took twenty boys camping in 1907 and thereby started the Boy Scout movement. I was a Boy Scout myself once, and apart from the marching I greatly enjoyed it and have always regarded the Scout movement as broadly speaking a pretty good thing. I can still tie several different kinds of knots. I never knew much about B-P but have learned a lot more about him in the last few days as the local and indeed national media have argued his merits and demerits to and fro, and think that he’s not quite as bad as some people have painted him.

But I’ve decided that I don’t care much about statues, unless they’re by Michelangelo or Bernini or Rodin. They are just lumps of metal and stone and if people want them removed that’s fine with me, though I hope it can be done without violence. The important thing is to get beyond the symbolism and try to deal much better with the reality. I hope that the politicians will soon stop pontificating about the violence and see the point: that things need to change, which amongst other things means that we honkies have to get more involved with our local communities, and if that’s not possible we can make a donation to one of the organizations that are trying to change things for the better. Here are a few:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/black-lives-matter-charity-donate-uk-stephen-lawrence-stop-hate-a9544786.html

  • Joseph Harker in The Guardian, 11th June 2020.

Put-downs

Heard a good one on TV the other day. It was in one of those true-crime things with a retired detective talking about some of the murder cases he had solved, and he amuses me because in his pieces-to-camera he occasionally goes into a sort of tough-guy lingo like a private eye in a 1940s movie:

Whenever someone would ask me if I felt any sympathy for the people I was arresting I used to say “The only place you’ll find sympathy round here is in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.”

Rather surprising to hear this on afternoon telly and probably the invention of a scriptwriter, but it’s one I’m storing up for possible future use myself, so if someone should come running to me saying “Wah, I’ve lost my wallet and I don’t know what to do!” I’ll have my response right there ready.

I once thought of compiling a book of put-downs, those crushing remarks also known as squelchers that put the other person firmly in their place, and started collecting examples — like this early one attributed to King George V who apparently said it to a guest who had arrived at a grand function wearing the newly-fashionable turned-up trousers:

We were unaware, sir, that the corridors of our palace were damp.

Rather unfair as the poor guest couldn’t answer back (“Oh, go fuck yourself, your majesty” would have been nice).

More modern instances can be more directly abusive, like this one from Kurt Vonnegut Jr:

If your brains were dynamite there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.


and these unattributed ones:

Here’s a nickel. Go call up all your friends.
People clap when they see you. They clap their hands over their eyes.
If I throw a stick, will you leave?

and my little anthology would have included a few classics: certainly a few by the wonderful Dorothy Parker, e.g.

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker

This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.

Tell him I was too fucking busy — or vice versa.

and some from Groucho Marx (or his scriptwriters):

Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room and I think it’s you.

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

But my collection foundered because to make it a decent length I would have had to pad it out with more over-familiar quotations from the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Thomas Beecham and other historical wits so I reluctantly put it aside. That was a few years ago, though, and the put-downs go on.

Hecklers sometimes come up with good ones as when U2 were playing a gig in Glasgow and Bono decided to give the audience a little lecture.

A pause between songs, the lights go down. Bono begins clapping his hands together slowly . . . once . . . twice . . . three times . . . four times . . .
Bono says: “Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa.”
Voice from crowd: “Stop fucking clapping then!”

But It can be dangerous to mix it with a sharp comedian like Paul Merton who once responded to a heckler with

Excuse me, I’m trying to work here. How would you like it if I stood yelling down the alley while you’re giving blowjobs to transsexuals?

But pride of place here goes to what Gershon Legman described as “the worst insult a woman can offer a man”:

Is it in?

Words 1

A quotation in an earlier post included the word sympathy and in passing I noted how seldom we see it these days as it is supplanted by empathy, which has become what Fowler called a vogue word. In a recent review section of The Guardian I counted no less than seven instances of empathy or empathetic in its various articles, and I see that the dictionary-makers have been busily playing catch-up to re-define its differences from sympathy.

Anything wrong with empathy? Not really, though I think that many of the writers who use it do so without much thought, precisely because it’s the fashionable term. Has sympathy gone? No, it’s just lurking in the shadows and may re-assert itself one day. The problem with vogue words is that we get sick of them.

Another current one is decimate, which classical scholars will know means ‘to reduce by one-tenth’: not to one-tenth or to wipe out altogether, though that is how it tends to be used these days. “The whole area has been completely decimated” says a TV reporter describing the charred after-effects of a forest fire, and a sports commentator once said that Mo Farrah had “simply decimated the opposition”, meaning that he won the race easily. Decimate in this sense is attractive because the speaker can stress the first syllable and its concluding sibilant — DESS-imate — giving it a dramatic ring, which is not the case with destroy or any other synonym. And of course we know what the reporters mean even if they don’t know or respect their Latin.

Then again: Once upon a time an enormity was an outrage, usually of a criminal nature. A Victorian maiden happening upon the scene of some hideous murder might have exclaimed “Merciful heavens, what heinous fiend can have perpetrated such an enormity?” but these days the word is generally used to denote great size, as when an astronomer speaks of the enormity of a galaxy or of the universe itself, as Brian Cox has sometimes done.

It sounds right. Everyone knows what enormous means, and in speech the central o-sound of enormity (which actually has a somewhat different derivation) can be stretched out to evoke wide open spaces (the arms may also be stretched out to illustrate the concept visually), while the alternatives are much less appealing: vastness and immensity are altogether too hissy for the purpose, while bigness, hugeness and indeed enormousness are awkward and ugly formations, colossal and stupendous generate no manageable nouns, and many hold that massive should have at least something to do with mass.

Purists may disapprove, but I think we must surrender to the forces of common usage and accept that big-enormity has ousted bad-enormity, and that use of the latter should now be confined to works of historical fiction, time-travel and possibly steampunk. It can go too far, though. In a recent TV programme about the excavation of some hitherto unknown tombs in Egypt the archaeologist in charge spoke of “the enormity of the discovery”, by which she presumably meant its great importance. I think this is an enormity too far, a bad-enormity in fact.

And while we’re on the subject of vogue words here’s a list of some words and expressions that I guarantee will never be used by me in this blog:

  • awesome (unless it really does inspire awe)
  • from the get-go
  • elephant in the room
  • epicentre (unless it’s about an earthquake)
  • going forward
  • meme (unless it’s from Richard Dawkins)
  • perfect storm
  • proactive
  • quantum jump or leap (except in physics or SF)
  • scenario (unless it’s a film treatment and not a worst-case)
  • sea change
  • step change
  • trope (unless it’s a figure of speech)
  • viral

I’m still debating whether someone like me should ever say or write heads up. There’s nothing more ridiculous than an old guy trying to be hip, as we used to say.

Nigel aka Simon

The phone call came out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, and it changed my life. It was Charles Platt asking if I’d like to be the Art Editor of New Worlds. I said that I would and continued reading Gormenghast, which was just reaching its exciting climax. This was in 1969.

I had been doing occasional illustrations for this New Worlds, which had started out as a straight science fiction monthly years earlier but under Michael Moorcock’s flamboyant editorship in the 1960s had become the leading forum of what would soon be termed the New Wave, rejecting most of the well-worn SF ideas in favour of more experimental, avant-garde writing with J.G Ballard at the helm. Those of us who cared about such things found it wildly exciting and I — a PhD student at the time — was thrilled at the prospect of being an integral part of it. Charles was officially the designer but he also acted as a sort of business manager, doing his best to make sure that the magazine appeared on time each month, and it seemed that he liked my work.

The only problem was that New Worlds already had an Art Editor in Nigel Francis, a young fellow that Charles had recruited from his old school. “Don’t worry about that,” said Charles, but I felt uneasy as I mounted the stairs to the New Worlds office for the first time. It was in a very run-down terraced house at the shabby end of Portobello Road, and the banisters had been removed (for firewood? We were all desperately poor) leaving a sort of cavity below the upper flight. This was filled with a heap of what looked like old clothes, but as I passed it the heap stirred (rats?) and from it emerged Nigel. “Hello,” he said, seemingly without rancour.

It transpired that although Nigel was a neat and careful designer he was very slow. He had apparently spent the best part of a fortnight creating a small title-piece from smoke, spending hours waving a candle beneath various pieces of art board that he had treated with gum. Somehow it worked and his smoke-lettering did appear in the magazine, but for Charles it had been the last straw as deadlines had come and gone, and I was soon installed at the design table in the corner of the main office.

Nigel evidently lived in the heap under the stairs, and over the next few weeks as I beavered away getting the magazine out on time he would occasionally materialize behind me, looking at what I was doing but saying nothing. This wasn’t particularly disconcerting, however, as Nigel proved to be a gentle, amiable soul who never gave any hint that he might resent my presence. I came to like him a lot. He was certainly eccentric, though. After consulting some sort of guru he shaved his head and changed his name to Simon. OK, now we all have to call him Simon.

With winter approaching he decided that he needed an overcoat and penniless as usual he decided to make one. He had noticed that right-handed people wearing jeans rarely used the left back pocket and vice versa with the left-handed ones, so on weekends when Portobello Road was crowded with tourists there would be Simon armed with a small sharp pair of scissors asking people if he might carefully remove one of their jeans pockets for this coat he was making. He did it too, and we’d occasionally see him out and about wearing his patchwork coat of many colours, all of them blue. Charles, meanwhile, had decided that shoes were unnecessary and was walking the streets barefoot. He soon gave that up, however (“broken glass and dog shit”). Strange and rather wonderful days.

I lost track of Simon soon after that, but Charles told me that he had started earning money repairing people’s bicycles from a squat in Kilburn, then that he had got married — and to a lady doctor — but it wasn’t long before he was killed in a traffic accident in the West Country: a nasty end for an odd, sweet guy fondly remembered by the dwindling band of people who knew him.

And how did that phone call change my life? Well, the idea of a PhD had lost some of its allure but now I was learning new skills which would eventually lead me to a career in publishing. Another story.

Bird

The French windows in the study were open and a sparrow flew in. It perched on a standard lamp, and when I tried to shoo it out again it flew across to the bookshelves and found a hiding place high among the books where I couldn’t get at it.

We don’t see many sparrows these days. Loss of habitat, pesticides, cats? Who knows, but they have certainly become scarce round here, and this one didn’t look too well. Had it flown indoors to have a rest, or even to die? Dunno, but there’s something rather alarming about having a wild creature in your room, even a tiny and possibly sick one, and I needed to do something about it.

I had a long-handled brush thing for sweeping cobwebs away from corners and ceilings, and started poking about among the shelved books to try and shift the little visitor. It was a soft brush which I thought wouldn’t do any harm if it touched the creature, but when it did the sparrow simply flew across the room and took up a new position on top of the clock on the wall, looking at me with its mad bird’s eyes. I tried cajoling it, shouting at it and flapping my arms up and down to demonstrate what it ought to be doing, but it just sat there.

I wielded the brush again, trying to manoeuvre the sparrow towards the French windows, but it just flew back across the room and found another hiding place in the bookshelves. I had work to do and tried to get on with it, hoping that the bird would fly out of its own accord, but it didn’t, and I found that I couldn’t settle to my writing knowing that I had an avian observer only a couple of feet away. This went on for quite some time.

At one stage I went out into the back garden and tried to lure the bird out by making what I hoped might be seductive sparrow-like noises. God knows what the neighbours must have thought if they’d witnessed such a strange performance, but this didn’t work either. I went back inside and just sort of paced about, wondering what else I could do.

Soon I needed to pee, and this was tricky because if the bird flew away while I was out of the room how could I be sure that it had gone? It was adept at concealing itself. So I went upstairs to the loo, closing the study door behind me reckoning that at least it couldn’t get into any other part of the house, and when I returned all seemed calm. Perhaps the bird had gone, but I eventually spotted the little bastard still there amongst the books. Another long stand-off ensued.

By now it was starting to get dark and a good deal cooler, and I wanted to close the French windows and lock up but didn’t like to shut the bird in overnight, so out came the brush again, now applied much more vigorously, and with a good deal more poking and shouting the bird did eventually go. It didn’t seem to be flying very convincingly as it disappeared into the sunset, but what can you do?

And that, dear Editor, is why my manuscript is late.

After lockdown in London

Driving down to Broadstone is like travelling back in time to the 1950s.  There are no black people on the streets here, while Asians are to be found only in the newsagents’ and restaurants. Muslims? Burkas? Don’t make me laugh.

I think most of the residents like it this way. The whole area has been staunchly conservative for decades: stopping for petrol at Rownhams services on the way down I made a scathing remark to some people in a queue about Dominic Cummings, and was surprised to find them springing to his defence (“He does a very useful job actually” etc.).  So I have to make some big mental adjustments when I’m here and keep some of my more insurrectionary thoughts to myself.

So why do I want to live here?  Mostly because of the house and the garden, but also because my neighbours here are terrific, the same age as me, and sharing many of the same tastes.  Music, movies, food, gardening etc.  When I arrived neighbour Pete happened to be wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt,  which made me feel at home straight away.  We have formed a little Yorkshire enclave, and they assure me that there are other decent (not necessarily Yorkshire) people around who I’ll discover when I’m permanently here.  They tell me that the local restaurant, which is literally a stone’s throw from my front door, has recently changed hands because the previous owners were busted for having a cannabis factory upstairs, so I guess not everyone’s True Blue.

The garden here, which I love, has completely gone to hell in the ten weeks that I’ve been away (the photo above shows it before the lockdown).  The grass is now knee-high, the hedges are massively overgrown and there are weeds everywhere, some sprouting vigorously through the tarmac on the drive.  Pumped-up superweeds.  A few of the newer plants have died through lack of watering, though most of the others have survived and are ready to bloom.  I missed the brief flowering season of the weigela while I was gone, but the hydrangea looks nearly ready to roll. It will take a lot of work putting everything to rights.  I like gardening but this is rather daunting, so I’m thinking of borrowing the gardener that Pete and Celia have in once a week.  They say I can.  And if you’re thinking that I’m lucky with my neighbours, believe me I know it — and I haven’t yet told you about my London neighbours who during the lockdown have been absolutely … I’ll save them for another time.

Despite these challenges it’s good to be back here in Broadstone, reunited with my lovely big iMac after weeks of pissing about with the nasty little laptop I bought to use when travelling — I’m really just camping out when I’m in London these days — and with my La-Z-Boy which though rather scruffy now is the most comfortable chair I’ve ever known.  Zzzzz.