William Wharton, Birdy (1978)
Al and Birdy were both scarred by their experiences in the Second World War. For Al, the damage was largely physical – he now has a jaw made of glass – but for, Birdy, it was mental. Now in a psychiatric hospital, Birdy is living up to his name and acting like a bird. Al has been brought in to try to get through to his old friend; he recounts to Birdy stories of their younger years in Philadelphia. Alternating chapters chronicle Birdy’s developing fascination with birds as a child.
Birdy has recently been republished in the UK by The Friday Project (along with Shrapnel, a previously unpublished war memoir of William Wharton’s). As a first-time reader of Wharton, this is a powerful book, because of the way it depicts such a vivid character as Birdy becoming lost in his own mind. Al’s engaging reminiscences show how enterprising and resourceful he and Birdy were; in Birdy’s chapters, these qualities are applied to the keeping of birds. Wharton portrays Birdy’s slide from this to a too-close association with birds convincingly, which gives Al’s later attempts to reach Birdy all the more force.
P.Y. Betts, People Who Say Goodbye (1989)
In the 1930s, Phyllis Betts wrote several short stories, contributions to Graham Greene’s magazine Night and Day, and one novel (French Polish)… then she wasn’t heard of again for another fifty years, until Christopher Hawtree tracked her down to a Welsh smallholding; she was eventually persuaded to write this memoir, which I’m reading in a lovely hardback edition from Slightly Foxed.
People Who Say Goodbye is a joy to read, principally because Betts is so engaging, both as a writer and character. She has a knack for identifying the telling details that bring the people from her childhood to life; such as Dr Biggs, who pronounced ‘bowels’ as two syllables, and who treated all ills with a swift examination by stethoscope, followed by a prescription of brown cough mixture and red tonic. The young Phyllis and her mother also had a robust, no-nonsense attitude to life (‘What happens to all those dead people who are put into graves?’ asks Phyllis. ‘They rot,’ her mother repies).
But that quotation points also to the undercurrent of darkness in the book. Living through the First World War – and especially with a hospital down the road – the reality of death was never far from Phyllis’s life. As Betts puts it, the people who say goodbye don’t come back. It’s the careful balance of moods that makes this memoir such a rewarding read.
This book fulfils the Biography category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.