Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can  switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic is enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

Of Olive And Her Ankles

This will not be a long post, being simply a response to a ridiculous prompt: mnemonic.

It will not be a long post because although at school – when mnemonics are most useful – I was quite good at thinking up mnemonics, I was not at all good at remembering what they stood for. I was interested in the mnemonic for its own sake, not the boring thing that originally necessitated it, and I had a tendency to forget boring things.

The one everyone recalls from school, I suppose, is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – EGBDF. This is something to do with Music – maybe the notes on a piano? There is also FACE. I never had the faintest interest in learning to read music, so I instantly forgot what they stood for and was persecuted by Miss Spokes the music teacher for ever after. Miss Spokes was going thin on top, and her false teeth occasionally fell out on the piano whilst she was playing. She had a voice like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street (on a bad day) all cracked and hideous. She told me I was a soprano, and forced me to sing – or rather mime – the soprano part in every single song we ever sang, even though I was, and knew I was, and have for ever after continued to be, an alto of severely limited range.

At school I was even less interested in Maths than I was in Music. This was partly my mother’s fault. Just before I started infant school, aged 4.5 or possibly 5, she foolishly told me she had never been any good at Maths at school and didn’t expect I would be either. Instant fear. Instant failure. They sat me on the ‘bottom table’ for Maths and the top table for English, and in these locations I remained, either metaphorically or actually, for the rest of my school career.

In my thirties, however, I decided I needed to teach myself Maths and get a Maths ‘O’ level. I bought that year’s text book in Smiths – a great, fat thing it was – and taught myself. I did it mostly by working backwards from the answers. One of the Engineers at work taught me some basic algebra. So – this is where the mnemonic comes in – for the exam I had to memorise the rules for calculating sines, cosines and tangents.

In those days, by the way, there were no calculators. You had a skinny, dog-eared set of tables full of tiny, tiny numbers and you had to look them up, and since I have the kind of eyes that cannot follow a row all the way along, but will skip up and down at random  I would have to put a coloured ruler underneath the row and follow it along that way.

I recall that sines, cosines and tangents are something to do with right-angled triangles but have no idea now – and I suspect had no idea when I passed my Maths O Level with flying colours – what possible use one might make of them once one had calculated them. I invented a mnemonic to remember them, which was:

Olive Has Always Had Orange Ankles
Opposite over Hypotenuse, Adjacent over Hypotenuse, Opposite over Adjacent

Olive, by the way, was the receptionist at the Power Station where I worked (hence the availability of Engineers to help with the algebra). Olive was harshly made-up, sour faced and completely lacking in a sense of humour. She once crashed her car on the way to work, I remember, by ‘just looking down on the floor for her handbag for a moment’. She did not like me.

Poor Olive: presumably she’s dead by now. And what a way to be immortalised – in a mnemonic invented by someone you didn’t much like, for something nobody much understands or ever wanted to much understand in the first place.

Barberous

Nan used to tell me tales of her Granny Sarah, her own mother – she of the permanently- escaping-from-the-skirt-waistband white blouse, who accidentally killed her favourite chicken in the kitchen by sweeping it up with a besom broom and then burst into tears. I think I would have both liked and feared Granny Sarah, whose rages and whose sorrows swept over her and all who surrounded her like clouds on an English summer day.

One of the things Nan told me was that, like many Victorian ladies, Granny Sarah never cut her hair. And she washed it once a year, in the water-butt outside. The water in the water-butt was softer, since it had come down as rain. As an adult I have wondered about that green algae you get floating on top of water-butts – all the mosquito eggs and the floating bits of detritus – but as a child I did not, just accepted that Granny Sarah’s hair remained clean and glossy because she only washed it once a year, presumably around midsummer since they didn’t have hair-dryers in those days, and because she brushed it with a hundred strokes of a soft hairbrush every single night before retiring to bed.

For most of my adult I felt compelled to wash my hair every single day, until it was as dry as dust. This was because my mother had believed in washing children’s hair once a week and no more, which was probably standard for the 50s. By the end of the week it was itchy-itchy-itchy and dripping with grease, or so I felt. Mum rarely did this herself – I seem to remember soap in the eyes, and tantrums. Nan took care of the hair-washing, on Sundays, providing a folded flannel for me to cover my eyes and keep out the stinging soap. Hey presto! no more tantrums.

Now it’s more like every other day. Your hair gets dryer as you get older, like the rest of you. A sere leaf you are, by the end. Just dangling there waiting to drop ‘orf.

Today I went to the hairdressers in my old town. It was very cold, and having miscalculated I arrived there far too early. I seemed to have left the car heater on windscreen defrost all the way down and my feet felt like solid blocks of ice.

I was still early, but I went in. They had given me a male hairdresser. I knew technically it was a unisex salon but I had never, hitherto, seen a man in there or a male hairdresser. I tried to make polite conversation as he washed my hair for me – the hair-wash girls must have Saturdays off – asking him about the difference between barbering and hairdressing. He said barbering you could learn in about twenty minutes, hairdressing took years. In the old days, he said, you learnt them both at once. Now there were separate courses and people only did one or the other. I sighed, mentally. I had a feeling he was going to be hard work.

I remembered my last haircut. I couldn’t remember her name but we talked non-stop, about men (of course) about love and life, about iron deficiency and constipation, about her D&C – something to do with afterbirths – and my infected cat bite, about hospitals and children and cabbages and kings. I was exhausted by the time I came out, but happy. Women talk like that. Women, on the whole, say more than is necessary. Men say less than is necessary. Far less.

It is quite scary having your hair cut by a man when you’re not used to it. He zoomed around me on that stool of his, chopping bits away here and bits away there. Why had I let him persuade me to have it cut shorter and sort of shaped in at the back? I was going to end up with some sort of short-back-and-sides thing, or even shaven. I was sure he was going to… barber me.

And then he started sneezing, loud horrid sneezes. Eventually he had to go off and blow his nose trumpetingly somewhere out the back. So much for avoiding infection, I think. What’s the point of all that disinfectant soap and hand-washing if barbers are going to sneeze at you. And then he couldn’t find the hairdryer, and when he did, having hunted all round the salon for it, it turned out to be held together with black duct tape, and huge. It was the longest hairdryer I had ever seen. I said something to the effect. He spent some time explaining to me the difference between professional hairdryers and the paltry sort I would have at home. Professional hairdryers dried the hair more quickly, he said, so they had to be huge.

I closed my eyes at this point so as not to be staring at parts of him I didn’t want to be caught staring at, as they circled around me at an ever-increasing rate. With women it’s the cleavage. No, look at me they coax as they start on your fringe, squinting in concentration. And there you are, faced with some vast, pink unwanted cleavage. With men it’s… even worse.

He kept donking me on the head with that ultra-long hairdryer. No woman hair-stylist had ever done that. After the second painful donk I was wondering whether to make some tactful little joke about it? Just casually? The third time, he noticed, and apologised, but the fourth time, he didn’t notice again. This is getting beyond a joke, I thought. I hope this new hairdo is going to be really good to make up for this battering.

And was it? Well, it was certainly different. And that’s all I’m saying.

victorian hair

Men Don’t Make Passes… full stop.

When I was a mere slip of a girl in the 50s and 60s there used to be this horrid, patronising, sexist saying: “Men Don’t Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses”, and in my experience this was true. Of course, it may only have been true in my experience. It is possible that other girls with glasses were having a whale of a time.

At least part of this may have been due to the ugliness of glasses in 50s and 60s Britain. From 1948 to 1985 there was a phenomenon unique to Britain – the National Health Spectacle Frame. Apparently these were the envy of other countries, who had neither a National Health nor its spectacle frames, but they were loathed in this country. The range was – limited – to say the least, and what there was seemed to have been designed, either to discourage you from availing yourself of their extreme cheapness, or to advertise to the world that you were too poor to be able to afford anything else. Which of course, you were.

I remember a little boy called Steven Savage (forgive me little Steven, if you are still alive). All the kids used to call him Steven Sandwich, since it sounded like that. Poor Steven Sandwich had National Health specs, and worse, one of the lenses was permanently covered in pink sticky plaster. I believe this was a technique to strengthen a weak ‘other’ eye, by forcing it to do twice the work. Either that or the glass was cracked.

And glasses or not, I had other issues. It wasn’t just the glasses that failed to attract men to me, but me being taller than all of them and possessed of what a doctor once (erroneously, a it turned out) referred to as “child-bearing hips” or was it “child-bearing thighs”? My Dad was 6 foot 4 inches tall and all my female relatives on his side were Amazonian in build. I had an aunt and a sister both pushing 6 foot, and another sister 5 foot 10. I was actually the lucky one – I was the shortest.

And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I grew up with sisters. I went to school with girls. Boys were – alien. They guffawed a lot. They patronised. They obviously felt themselves to be superior. And the advice then was not, under any circumstances, to appear to be cleverer than them. Men liked clever girls even less than they liked girls who wore glasses. So I tried to be stupid but could never quite pull it off.  Unable to speak my actual thoughts, I was left with nothing at all to say. Banter was beyond me. Giggling – just couldn’t manage it. Flirting – never quite got the hang.

Eventually I managed to bag a man or two, but only by signalling my availability really, really obviously, and how I even did that I can’t remember. And even then these chaps didn’t exactly rush to take advantage of me. Special Offer, and all that. It was more like an unenthusiastic amble.

And then I didn’t fancy them anyway, because:

Premise Number 1:

Who would want a man who only ambled? I wanted my Hero, my Knight on a White Charger, that man who would pursue me desperately to the ends of the earth; somebody driven frantic by my very presence in a room. I wanted romance, I wanted passion.

But even if there had been a Mr Darcy I would have instantly lost interest in him, because:

Premise Number 2:

If he was the sort of man desperate enough to want me he couldn’t be a proper man. He needs must be wimp, a total loser; there had to be something seriously wrong with him.

Premise Number 2 is the killer because there’s absolutely no way around it. For an entire lifetime your logical mind can argue the self-defeating ridiculousness of Premise Number 2: some primitive, damaged part of your subconscious will continue to know it is true.

At one point I had an inspiration. I could be a Lesbian! I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what Lesbians did with each other, but I knew I was already built for the part. All it would take was one of those shaven hairdos and perhaps a silver stud through my tongue. My niece – she of the pink hair, the Doc Martens, the many exotic tattoos and, sadly, now, the failed kidneys, once shared a flat with a gaggle of Lesbians and it didn’t seem to do her any harm. In fact my exotic niece seems to have had an awful lot more fun in her life than I ever did.

Anyway, so I looked around at women and attempted to find at least a few of them attractive but, inconveniently, could not. (My old friends Rose and Daisy will be relieved to hear this.)

And now – well, now things are better. I don’t feel obliged to attract men at all, and certainly not in that competitive, trophy-hunting, 1960s kind of way.  I like men – mostly and I like women – mostly. And mostly people are just people to me nowadays. I treat them alike, whatever they are.

And – bonus – the National Health Spectacle Frame is no more – abolished, I believe, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I can wear any specs I like. I can send for them through the post, I can try them on at home and send them back if I don’t like them. I can have three pairs. I can have purple ones, or tortoiseshell, or knicker-pink.  I can go Dame Edna or John Lennon. I can – what else can I do…? Oh well, you know what I mean.

nhs

The Poemworm

I have to confess that though overblown imagery and gothic, post-romantic medievalism are out of fashion at the moment (they are still, aren’t they? or have they snuck back in again?) I just love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and particularly cherish The Lady of Shalott. And this is despite the fact that he named her after a type of onion. I wonder why he did it. Perhaps in late Victorian times shallot didn’t mean a type of onion?

Well – I discover, belatedly checking it on the internet – that’s not strictly true. The Lady of Shalott has one L and two Ts, whereas the onion’s cousin has two Ls and one T.

According to my battered copy of The Everyman Book of Victorian Verse: The Post-Romantics, Tennyson’s story corresponds to the death of the Lady of Astolat of unrequited love for the oh-so-beautiful Sir Lancelot. Why didn’t he stick with Astolat, I wonder? It’s easy enough to rhyme.

The other linguistic peculiarity is one of which a sheltered late Victorian gentleman like Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably unaware – that, to English women at any rate, The Curse is code for a very specific event. So when ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott – it can tend to produce a wry smile of sympathy.

It just shows you, though, how brilliant the poem is, that I can read that particular verse again and again, and still enjoy it:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

 I have not yet found a way of forcing this particular off-the-peg WordPress website design to do single spacing when it comes to poems, so I won’t go on quoting. No doubt if I was a Techie Tinkerer with Code and Stuff I could do so. Life is too short for Techie Tinkering. It falls into the same category as Mushroom Stuffing, Filing Old Paperwork and Rearranging Living Room Furniture.

The Lady of Shalott will keep buzzing around in my head at the moment. Not so much an earworm as a poemworm, although music is tangentially to blame since I have also been binge-listening to Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt  on Spotify, and one of her songs is – guess what, set to music? Yes, The Lady of Shalott. I am haunted, by this lady imbowered on her island.

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

And of course, if you love the poem you have to love the art too. I revel in those lurid colours, the weird twilights and, I’m afraid, all that wafting ginger (sorry, Titian) hair. It’s the luscious excess of it all. It’s because of cigarette cards, and Sunday evenings.

When I was a child I spent every Sunday with Nan and Grandad along the road. As I have written before, those Sundays were my childhood-proper, my respite time. Along the road was where I belonged, safe with N and G, by a roaring fire, in a fug of tobacco smoke, with Sally the fat, cream-coloured labrador asleep on my feet; waiting for my newly-washed hair to dry, and consuming crumpets passed to me from the tines of a brass toasting-fork, by Grandad.

Anyway, in those days cigarette packets were smaller and – as an incentive to buy them and ruin your health – contained small, rectangular, brightly coloured cards. Children collected these. There were famous footballers and famous Shakespearian characters –  and Grandad had a collection of these, in an album. It was there I first saw the picture I called – just inside my head, thankfully, not aloud – The Floating Green Lady (who is actually Ophelia, by John Everett Millais) and all unknowingly became hooked on the Pre-Raphelites for ever.

ophelia

And looking at her now, she’s not even green, is she?  Everything else is green but she’s kind of dampish silver-grey. But it was the green-ness that made an impression on me – and the chilly wetness, and the floating flowers, and the tragedy of it all; the way she was floating with the weed, the way her dead hands rose up out of the water, as they would in real life, or real death. I used to practise the Green Lady Floating Hands in the bath.

Do you have any Guilty Pleasures, art or poetry-wise? Any Poemworms? Any guilty bathtime memories?

Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?

deep-breath

The Marmite Child and the Man Without a Candle

I was not entirely ignorant of French before I got to Technical school at the age of eleven, and started being taught it/him. My Grandfather had been in the First World War and came back with some useful phrases – one for “two eggs and chips”, for example. I won’t repeat my previously-blogged attempts to convey the mangling effect of Grandad on the French language. Once is painful enough.

And there was one that sounded distantly like Parlez vous, mademoiselle? a phrase I suspect British soldiers would use to make the acquaintance of kindly French ladies. I’ll call them kindly French ladies since – well, this is my Grandad we’re talking about.

French exerts a kind of magnetic pull on the English. It sounds like magical incantations – meaningless, scary, but interesting – and so we have appropriated bits of it here and there, rolling those strange sounds around on the tongue. There was that cycling club, for instance – the San Fairy Ann.

San Fairy Ann were bitter local rivals of my father’s cycling club, the Medway Wheelers. The Wheelers wore green and orange racing shirts and The Fairies yellow and purple. If a Wheeler happened to pass a Fairy at a race or on the road there would be a kind of grunt of recognition as they whizzed past one another, a gruff acknowledgement only.

And – why was I talking about this? – remind me, someone – oh yes, San Fairy Ann was born of a French phrase – ça ne fait rien – which means something like ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘it is of no importance’. Another wartime acquisition, though maybe from a later war. Ça ne fait rien – I suppose for the Fairies it contained the essence of that post-war joy: bowling along those damp, green, but most importantly English country lanes on your racing bike, out in the fresh air, alone, after the ghastliness of foreign battlefields. It meant I’m home again and life is good!

My French teacher, Madame Beesden, didn’t much like me. I sensed this and it came as no surprise. I had long understood that I was one of those Marmite Children whom teachers would either loathe or take a kind of bewildered pity on. Oddly enough I greatly admired her, and would have liked her if she’d let me. Children have a nose for an excellent teacher: I sensed that our Madame, unlike many French teachers employed by English schools in those days, was the possessor of a proper French accent, even though – it was rumoured – she was Turkish rather than French. Confusing, the combination of Arab looks – the dark skin, the hooded eyes, the fierce expression – with a French title and what sounded very much like an English surname. She was pretty old then, and must be long dead.

She drummed that troublesome French ‘r’ into us almost straight away, via a little rhyme:

Trois très gros rats / Dans trois très gros trous / Rongeait trois très gros grains d’orge.

Three very fat rats in three very big holes gnawed on three very big grains of barley.

I think. There seem to be more complicated versions on You Tube now, involving croutons rather than grain, and the rats being grey rats rather than just rats, but perhaps La Beesden simplified it for us. I never actually found that ‘r’ difficult once I had worked out that you had to kind of breathe in and breathe out at the same time. I had a good ear for the subtleties of pronunciation, even if I was Marmite.

She started us on the verb être (to be), which banjaxed us at the very outset.  There seemed to be so many versions of ‘be’ – suis, es, est, sommes, êtes. The trouble was – and this was something she never fully appreciated – English was our mother tongue and it had never occurred to us that our own verbs had different ‘people’ too, and that am, are, is etc are also different versions of a single verb. Neither were we willing to entertain such an outlandish idea. To us it was obvious that am, are, is and so forth were just the same. Our language was obvious. It was perfectly simple.

The songs were best. She had a good voice, considering she was old and quavery, and though monumentally dignified was not self-conscious about singing. She taught us Frère Jacques and Au Clair de la Lune:

Ma chandelle est morte. Je n’ai plus de feu…

My candle has died. I have no more fire…

and she taught us the one about the bridge at Avignon:

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse / Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse tout en rond

On the bridge of Avignon, people dancing, people dancing, on the bridge of Avignon, people dancing round and round (something like that, anyway).

I carry them around in my mind. Ever since, all down the years, those inexplicable dancers have been dancing around in circles on the bridge and that midnight-writing chap has been fretting away about his candle. Ever since, those smug, fat rats have continued to chomp on those grains of – whatever – down in their dark, mysterious holes.

au clair