A memoir about Betty Graham-Yooll by her nephew, Andrew Graham-Yooll, OBE
Waiting at Heathrow airport on my way back to Buenos Aires after Betty’s funeral in July, I scribbled notes about some “special” occasions Betty and I had shared. My recollections were always of a very fond and protective aunt, and I think she enjoyed my efforts to keep in touch.
I met Betty in London towards the end of 1961. She and Malcolm were off to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Betty bought me a drink at some pub after an early supper, and I ordered a gin and tonic. A cousin informed me it was the wrong time of day for a G&T, being a before dinner drink, but Betty remarked that it was perfectly all right for somebody from South America. She remembered her youth in Paris where the richest and most eccentric individuals were “all” South Americans, “usually from Argentina, my dear.”
In 1962, Betty came one lunch time to Ringwood, and from there drove me to Pembroke. She told me I slept all the way. It was the second and last time I saw Malcolm. He said I could come to breakfast in my dressing gown, which according to Malcolm was an essential part of any respectable individual’s luggage. I remember late night sounds at Pembroke, and breakfast reports by Betty of driving Malcolm at night to the homes of his patients in distress, childbirth, or whatever. I remember Malcolm detested the poetry of John Betjeman, which I very much liked. So after announcing once that I was reading bits, and getting such a rebuke, I kept quiet. I was 18 then.
Betty was an occasional visitor at our home in Rotherwick Road, London, which she seemed to enjoy. (Isabel did not, as she had to vacate her room to allow Betty to use it.) On the first visit she was a special guest. The occasion was the first Writers’ Day (organized by English PEN. In the last fortnight of preparation, PEN secretary Josephine Pullein Thompson (the children’s writer, mostly about ponies), ordered “invite your aunts, we must fill seats.”
Back in Buenos Aires in early 1963, I received a very loving and supportive letter from Betty after my father (Douglas) died. A few years later, I received a long thank you from her to my condolence message after Malcolm’s death. I wish I had kept those letters, but I lost an awful lot of family correspondence in the haste to destroy papers after police raids on the Herald, followed by my brief arrest and then flight from Argentina.
There are remarks by Betty that I treasure, not for any special reason, but simply because they were all Betty.
Accrington: For example, on Accrington, Lancs., where Inés was trying to set up home with Jon and where Rachel was born. “Oh, I know Accrington, horrid little town.”
Israel: And Betty on Israel (in front of Micaela), “I have nothing against Jewish people. I know quite a few. Yes, that is a cliché, but in my case it is true. I simply detest what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. The Israelis are cruel, horrible to the Palestinians.” (Over the years, and in spite of family loyalties, I have come to agree with her. I suppose now that if the Jewish state did not have the Palestinians to bully, the Israelis would tear each other to shreds.)
William Golding: My best Betty story is from Colombia: In 1983 I was in Bogotá, Colombia, at cousin Pamela Gibson Penalosa’s house to try to interview Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had a good introduction from Buenos Aires, and friends of Pamela achieved the connection. The day I visited GGM coincided with the end of his year as Nobel winner, and the announcement of the award going to William Golding. On entering the house, with hardly time to present my wee gift of packets of tea (suggested by Micaela in London) to Mercedes (GGM’s wife), the great man demanded to know if I had read Golding, and asked how widely Golding was read in the UK. I said that his books were read, and that Lord of the Flies was widely known. Next question was, what did I know about William Golding’s lifestyle. GGM said he had to write an article that evening about his Nobel successor. I confessed I knew nothing, but said I had an aunt who knew him, and cousin Liz who frequently rode with him. The great man could not believe his luck. “Call her, call her, now. Here, phone her,” he said walking to a phone on a bar. Then, almost pleading, “Please call her.” I did. It was mid afternoon in Bogotá, and several hours later in UK. Betty was having a bath. Her first question was, “Andrew, are you well?” Which is G-Y jargon for, “Andrew, are you drunk?” I assured her I was well and sober, and she told me to wait while she got a towel. I reported all this to GGM. When Betty came back to the phone she helpfully explained, “I don’t think I know much about these foreign writers.” (I did not translate that.) After that she went into some description of Bill Golding’s life and said I should call Liz, who was nowhere available. This rather shallow conversation appeared the following morning in GGM’s weekly article in the newspaper El Espectador.
Driving: Discussing my terror of Betty’s driving with Liz, I was surprised to hear she had refused to be driven by her since 1980. When on my annual visits to London, I caught a train to Salisbury, Betty was usually on the station platform to meet me. I consider myself worthy of some form of award, for sitting beside her on the drive to her home, or the pub across the road, right up to 1998. I would return to London severely shaken by the experience.
(Note: Andrew Graham-Yooll passed away on 5th July 2019. Find out more about him.)