Richard Knott on Don Charlwood, Slightly Foxed Issue 32

Sky Writing

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It was called the Dive during the war and it drew servicemen and women from across Yorkshire and the north who enjoyed the hubbub, the smoke and beer, and the temporary sense of freedom and escape that the bar provided. It was said that if you wanted to know where the RAF’s next raid would be, Bettys Bar – the Dive – was the place to be. Now Bettys is anything but a dive: elegant, timeless and comforting. Its waitresses are similarly fragrant, their white blouses and broderie anglaise aprons ironed with military precision. Bettys’ ground-floor restaurant is bright with mirrors, reflecting the line of delicate teapots on a high shelf, the silver of cake-stands and the narrow streets of York.

Downstairs you can see an altogether more poignant mirror displayed in the windowless corridor at the foot of the curved oak-banistered staircase. It is a fragment of a larger wartime original. Looking at it, you tend to ignore the reflection of yourself and concentrate on the names scratched on the glass, 569 of them in all, many of them from airmen and troops – British, Canadian, American – passing through York at the whim of wartime logistics. The accepted wisdom is that the first name on the mirror was scratched using a waitress’s ring; at all events, the custom of cutting one’s name on the glass developed, prompted no doubt by the way it seemed briefly to confer a sense of permanence in an uncertain world. I have often wondered how many of the signatories survived the war.

As well as the mirror, with its forlorn and shaky names, there are two visitors’ books, the first of which dates from 1989 and is slightly water-damaged following a leak on one of the floors above the restaurant. Increasingly over the years these books have been signed by veterans from the Second World War revisiting the past, or by their descendants, intent on commemoration; my ex-Bomber Command father-in-law has signed twice. My favourite entry is by a Dennis Webb who ‘la

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About the contributor

Richard Knott has been an actor, teacher and management consultant, but prefers writing history. His most recent books are Black Night for Bomber Command and Flying Boats of the Empire.

The cartoon in this article first appeared in The Tatler but there is no record of the cartoonist’s name.

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