Former Bettys boss swaps tea and cake for children's books
He led the family business for 30 years, is an environmentalist and now a children's author. Catherine Scott meets Jonnie Wild, great-nephew of Bettys founder.
Jonnie Wild may have been the boss of Bettys and Taylors for more than 30 years, but he admits that he always wanted to be a writer.
Having retired as CEO of the Harrogate business seven years, ago, the great-nephew of Bettys founder Frederick Belmont, sees publication of his first book next week.
It was playing with two of his four grandchildren that inspired The Carnivorous Crocodile, although he has been telling and writing stories for more than 30 years,
“I either wanted to play cricket for Yorkshire or be a writer, neither of which I achieved until now,” says Jonnie, whose wife Lesley is now chairman of the family business.
“I always made up stories to tell our two children when we were on holiday. I would get up early and write 500 words to read to the children that night,” says Jonnie. “Then I’d be up early the following day to write the next instalment – it was a superb discipline. As they grew older I’d change the stories.
“When I retired from the business I decided to become an apprentice writer to really learn the craft. But it was playing with two of my grandsons that gave me the idea for this book. They love being chased and like me to be the crocodile. I said they only way they could be safe from the crocodile was to stand on one leg and pretend to be flamingos, and that gave me an idea for the picture book story.”
But it wasn’t until he told illustrator Brita Granstrom his story and they approached a publisher that The Carnivorous Crocodile became a reality. He now has a three book deal with Otter-Barry Books.
All author royalties from the book will go to two specific wildlife habitat conservation projects in Africa, Udzungwa Forest Project and Tanzania Forest Conservation Group.
Jonnie is closely involved with both forest initiatives through his role with environmental charity, The United Bank of Carbon, a collaboration with scientists at the University of Leeds where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2011 for environmental and community work. He has also been involved in projects with the University of York and wildlife conservationists at Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire.
“I think that’s probably why I had flamingos on the brain when I wrote The Carnivorous Crocodile.”
Ironically it was Jonnie’s two children who were responsible for getting the former history teacher interested in becoming an environmentalist.
“I came home from work one day in the late 1980s and the children were distraught,” explains Jonnie, who lives in Harrogate.
“They had been watching Blue Peter and a piece about a rainforest that had been deliberately set on fire . They could see all the animals running out of it and they were really upset.
“I said don’t worry, if you help me we will replant the forest. If you plant one tree I will plant 999,999.”
True to his word, after the children planted a tree on the Stray in Harrogate, Bettys and Taylors not only planted 999,999 trees, by 2007 they had planted more than three million.
Jonnie also founded the Yorkshire Rainforest Project, with a mission to save an area of rainforest the size of Yorkshire.
It was to be the start of a passion for conservation which has pretty much taken over his life since retiring in 2011.
“It is very difficult to let go of something unless you’ve got something to reach out and grab,” he says of his decision to leave Bettys & Taylors.
“I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to get into once I had retired and for two or three years before I actually left I had started to do some environmental work for the business.
“I am no different from anyone else. You get interested in something and you want to make an impact,” he says.
The difference is that Jonnie really is making a difference and the passion is clear in his voice.
“Through the charity we are working with 11 different PhD projects looking at deforestation and also looking at the impact of tree planting including in the Yorkshire Dales in flood defences,” says Jonnie.
Maybe it is the teacher in him that makes him passionate about helping young scientists to be able to get their message across to a wide world.
He says his father encouraged him to plough his own furrow rather than feel a duty or obligation to take enter the family business.
So he became a secondary school history teacher before eventually entering the Bettys and Taylors empire.
“I suppose history is all about storytelling,” says Jonnie.
Even during his time as head of Bettys & Taylors he was still working with schools and young people.
And he is determined to get he conservation message across to a new generation.
“We were involved with the BBC’s Terrific Scientific series through the University of Leeds which encouraged primary school children to measure all the trees in their school and to work out how much carbon dioxide they were absorbing.”
Although he is busy with both of his passions, he still has time to tend the impressive kitchen garden at the home he shares with Lesley in Harrogate which supplies Bettys with much of its produce.
“I do find gardening very therapeutic.”
He is currently working on a book for older children aged about eight, the same age as his eldest grandson.
“I don’t have a plan when I write like some authors do,” says Jonnie.
“I just start writing and see where the characters take me. I find that extremely exciting. Although I do always have an audience in mind and I love writing for children.
“I love the physicality of a book – I don’t have a Kindle and my children and grandchildren all love books.
“Children love to have lots of action and excitement and even a little danger but above all they love to have fun and I like to have fun too.
“I love spending time with my grandchildren and young people – it keeps you young.”
Jonnie Wild will be doing a reading and book signing from The Carnivorous Crocodile at Waterstone’s in York on February 14 from 1pm-3pm.
The Carnivorous Crocodile by Jonnie Wild and illustrated by Brita Granstrom is published by Otter-Barry Books on Thursday February 1.