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

Forwardspringing Through Technicality

For a long time we were regaled with ads for motorcars which ended with some deep-voiced actor mumbling Vorsprung Durch Technik. And not translating it. I suspect it was the same actor who voiced that Irish butter ad – the one where he does his damnedest to seduce you into baking a large spud slowly and luxuriously in the oven instead of microwaving it like any normal person would – and then slathering it with Irish butter. I am something of a connoisseur of ads.

Anyway, at the time nobody except real Germans and German A level students knew what Vorsprung Durch Whatsit meant and most, like me, were too idle even to look it up. In a way, it was more interesting untranslated, like a mantra. Who really needs to know what Om Mani Padme Hum means?

But of course, worrisome Translating Mind would not, could not leave it alone. Way back in the past I had made a couple of attempts at learning German, the first being a term of adult education evening classes. I had been good at French at school. Unfortunately being good at French does not make you good at German. Two totally different Kettles of Fish.

The classes consisted mainly of nouns and verbs. Our teacher, a thin, weary man with an untidy beard and corduroy trousers, must have decided it would be too difficult to explain to us the masculine, feminine or neuter article so for a whole term we chanted (in German) such things as Cat Sits On Mat, Dog Walks in Park and Hedgehog Hunts in Hedgerow.

Part Two of each lesson involved a very long film. Every Thursday evening we watched this same film, starting from the beginning and never, ever getting to the end. It was something to do with two unattractive backpackers called Mary and John, who were really looking forward to sightseeing in Köln. Mary and John, having first changed their money at something called a Wechselstube, bought tickets at the Hauptbahnhof von Köln. That was how you always had to say it – von Köln. We never got any further than that and I have been unable to ‘wipe’ the Hauptbahnhof von Köln from of my mind ever since.

So, rather than look up Vorsprung Durch Technik I toyed around with it, idly splitting it into its component parts.

Vor I was fairly sure meant Forward, and the sprung bit was probably something to do with springing – the spring has sprung, the grass is riz, and all that – so Vorsprung must mean Forwardspringing.

Durch I actually remembered was ‘through’.

Technik I decided, losing interest now, must be Technicality.  So, this car firm was Forwardspringing Through Technicality. (Yawn…)

This leads me, finally, to flea traps. I have eighteen cats and, now, in spite of expensive flea treatments and in spite of the fact that they are indoor cats and until recently were flea-free, I appear to have eighteen cats with fleas.

It only takes one. You open the door, and in it hops, and onto a cat it hops and then you’re done for. You take a cat to the vet and it comes back with a flea. Yipee! Rich pickings!

This afternoon two German Flea Killers or Floh-Vernichter (Flea-Make-Notter) or alternatively Destructeur des Puces (Destroyer of Fleas) and Matapulgas (Flea-Matador) arrived, one for upstairs and one for downstairs. German engineering is famously splendid, of course, but it seems only Germans are clever enough to assemble items designed by Germans. It took me an hour and a half to put together one kit and almost as long again to assemble the other.

I just couldn’t get that piddly little light bulb into its piddly little socket. The bulb socket was designed only for German fingers, for those mutig enough to risk a finger-and-thumb-ful of brittle glass. All Germans, I think, must be right handed.

And that was only the beginning. Then there were the little plastic supports which had to be placed inside the lid using something called the non-return end (benutzen sie hierzu die Rücklaufsperren an den Enden).

And then there was the sticky paper disc which, as I discovered too late, had to go in before you attached the lid to the base with your Rücklaufsperren. Super-sticky, this paper disc. I couldn’t detach myself from it. In the end I had to anchor it with the top of a biro and wrench my hand away. No mere Floh would stand a chance against a Schutzpapier this ferocious. It would be Vernichted, slowly and excruciatingly.

It would be an ex-flea. This flea would be no more.

It occurred to me that rather than bombing us during the Second World War it would have been wiser to drop great sacksful of Floh-Vernichter kits. Shortly thereafter the invading armies could have hopped across the channel and taken over the whole country quite easily. As  we puzzled over our Rücklaufsperrens, our Glühlampes and our Schutzpapiers, we’d scarcely have noticed.

The Chuckit List

I’ve never really had a Bucket List. I can’t imagine me climbing Mount Everest, bungee-ing from the Eiffel Tower or orbiting the earth in a spacecraft simply for the sake of saying I’d finally done it. I mean, who am I going to say ‘I dunnit’ to? Are the overworked National Health nurses likely to be listening? A passing cleaner, perhaps? Maybe that giant spider in the corner wondering if what’s left of me might make a good meal.

But I have slowly been developing a Chuckit List. I won’t go into the whole thing now because it’s still coalescing. Suffice to say that when finished it will be a list of all those little skills I never had the time or patience to master before; those skills I never quite used but never quite lost either; those projects I started, maybe more than once, lost patience with and Chucked. I now find myself with time and not much else, and the thing about Chuckits is they’re cheap and time-consuming.

One of the Chuckits is to recover my French. I ‘did’ French at school for ‘A’ level and was quite good at it, then. I’ve never needed to use it since and would be horrified if expected to communicate with any kind of foreigner in anything but nice, safe old English. However, I seem to have retained a lot of it, at least for translation purposes. Books don’t sneer – or worse still, shrug at you when you get it wrong. French people do.

It occurred to me that the most entertaining way to re-learn French was to start reading French novels with the help of a giant dictionary. So I collected a handful of novels that looked fairly easy, and ‘gripping’ enough to keep the attention of an Anglophone with the attention span of a gnat. At the moment I’m working my way through Les vacances de Maigret. Fortunately I’ve never read Maigret in translation so the plot is new, and I’m genuinely looking forward to finding out Whodunit. So far, nobody’s Dun anything. Maigret’s walked into a slightly creepy convent (or am I just imagining it?) feeling melancholy and preoccupied. But it’s early days yet.

maigret 2.jpg

I’m writing out the translation as I go. The thing with French is, though – and that’s also what makes it so interesting – you (or at least, I) oftentimes can’t resolve it accurately into English. From the French you seem to get a clear picture of what Commissioner Maigret is seeing, but how to say it in English when it’s like nothing you’d ever need English for? For example:

Dans un bureau vitré, tout clair, tout net, percé d’un guichet, une soeur à cornette, assize devant un register, lui souriait et disait:

–          Bonjour, monsieur 6…

Now, what I picture as I read is a little office in some way sectioned out of the entrance hall of a convent. It’s as if the whole office is made of glass but vitré may just mean there’s a big window. And the window is pierced with a kind of grille, which makes me think of those little inset windows in banks and building societies, behind which the bored tellers sit, safe from attack by mutant customers etc. The office is filled with light, and it’s very clean. Behind the glass but in front of some sort of register sits a sister (nun-type sister) wearing one of those elaborate, draped white hats nuns wear or used to wear in France, kind of pointed, like an ice-cream cornet. She smiles at him and says:

–          Good day, Mr 6…

But how do you put that, succinctly, in English?

Anyway, it keeps me out of mischief.

Number 2 on the Chuckit List (I promise, no more than two) is knitting in the round. I’ve always avoided attempting such complicated items as gloves and socks, partly because it’s cheaper and easier to buy them than to buy the wool, and the pattern, and the needles and spend months trying to figure out how to turn the heel or achieve more than four fingers. However, I have decided to knit a balaclava.

Why a balaclava, you ask? Or, what is a balaclava?

Well, a balaclava is an unflattering helmet with a hole for the face. The idea is that it keeps head, cheeks and neck warm all in one garment. Wearing it, you look like a woolly cyborg, but never mind, you’re toasty. Women knitted mountains of them during the First World War to send off to troops on the front line. Mostly in France. Ha – a semi-circular post.

So, it will keep me warm and enable me to economise on heating but, and more importantly, it is a very complicated item to knit and requires two attempts at circular knitting, with a section of straight (i.e. two-needle) knitting in between.

I’ve just managed three rather wobbly ‘rounds’, having spent some time this morning watching a YouTube video of an über-soothing American lady with plump, comforting hands (the rest of her stayed anonymous) demonstrating how to join the two ends, which needle the stitch-marker should always be on and – most importantly – how to remedy an unwanted twist. The unwanted twist is the thing to avoid at all costs. If you get one you end up with a woolly version of the Mobius strip, only it’s taken you hours to make, whereas one of those twisted strips of paper takes seconds.

It’s a learning experience: if a fully-fashioned balaclava comes out of it I shall be most surprised. And so will the Post Lady if I forget to take it off when answering the front door. Though since the Post Lady turned up in a range of eccentric velour Christmas hats last year – one with rabbit-ears, I recall – worn with her post-lady hat on top, and blue-dyed hair – she may not bat an eyelid.


So I’ve woken up in the middle of the night again, probably because Old Rufus and Young Rufus are competing to see which can be the biggest nuisance. Young Rufus is winning, on the mega-purr front and in the violent-chin-butting contest. My mouth is full of that floaty fur you get when cats decide to demonstrate affection. After an abortive attempt to ignore all this and go back to sleep, I get up. It is four o’clock in the morning.

Sideways down the stairs, one step at a time, clinging to the rail. The right knee is playing up.

Vertical human equals food, and the Whiskas-lust is upon them. I’m not feeding you yet; you’ve got twelve half-bowls of Felix to be going on with. Anyway, most of you are too fat. I make a cup of coffee. While the kettle is boiling I play a quick game of football with George. The knee is still playing up but this is a tiny football, with a bell in the middle. George is much better at football than I. Sometimes I tell people he was called that after footballer George Best, but in fact he was named after several King Georges of England. The only King George I can usually remember is the mad one, with the purple wee. All the boys are named after Kings of one sort or another. I don’t switch on the living room light in case the neighbours might see I am about in the middle of the night and conclude that I am wandering in an elderly, Alzheimer’s kind of way, or just weird. Somehow their opinions, even their putative, probably non-existent opinions, constitute an invasion of my privacy. Flicking on the News Channel, I attempt to lift the mug around Arthur without it spilling. He sits on my knee, nose to nose, bolt upright. He is staring me out. Whiskas!

No Whiskas! No till six.


Same old, same old. City centre shootings, back-street stabbings and endless migrants; border after border closing in Europe, razor-wire being rolled out; crying children, babes in arms; exhausted adults swathed in blankets against the night rain, trapped between one barbed wire fence and another all day and all night; desperate faces. I could weep for the world.

For some reason this reminds me of that 1997 song by Cornershop, an East/West fusion band.

Brimful of Asha on the forty-five…

The song was catchy and also included the excellent line Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, everybody needs a bosom… It is a song with many layers of meaning. Asha means Hope, and Indian films are all about hope, relentless and sometimes rather syrupy. Asha was also the name of a one of the popular singing sisters Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar, who recorded background tracks for Bollywood films. Cornershop’s lead singer is of Punjabi heritage, yet he sings Asher. In the Punjab Asha would have been pronounced Aaasha, so he is indicating that he grew up in a different culture speaking English. The forty-five was a forty-five rpm record player… the sort of thing parents still had, when their children were moving over to CD players.

The house adjoining mine is empty, oppressively so. I don’t notice it during the day but at night a chill, a kind of dankness seems to come through the walls. Apparently they are in the South of France for several months, engaged in a Grand Design project, their dream villa; or staying in the caravan of a friend of a friend, it depends which neighbour you talk to. Presumably doggy is with them. The labradoodle. I wonder what the French would call a labradoodle. Le doodle probably, since they have a tendency to leave out bits of the words and phrases they borrow from us. Le scotch for Scotch tape but Le Scotch for the whisky. Le parking for the car-park. Le living for living-room. Le brushing for blow-drying. Interestingly, le fashion-victim is a compliment rather than an insult if you are called it by a Frenchman.

Things keep reminding me of things at this time of the night – sorry, morning. There was this play. They were all in a cottage, having a dinner party. It all seemed quite normal to start with and then someone peered out of the window – never a wise thing to do in a TV play – and there was nothing there. Nothing at all. Blackness. It was as if they were flying through space, trapped together for all eternity in this one cottage, in this dreadful dinner party, with this same little group of dreadful people. The play must have thoroughly creeped me out since I am now recalling it thirty years later. I keep thinking Rocket Cottage but no, that was the name of an album by Steeleye Span. It had a rocket on the front.

So what is keeping me awake? Many things.

Mum, deep in dementia yet refusing all help. My sister emailed me yesterday: ‘I think of Mum all the time, even in the middle of the night.’ Do we just have to wait for disaster to happen? Is there no safety net – no contingency plan in a situation like this? Surely we can’t be the only ones in this situation?

And catalogues, of course. Catalogue-delivering and income supplementation strategies generally eat into my precious time – time reserved for blogging, reading and thinking. I can’t think. No time to. The house is filling up with shiny home-shopping catalogues in shiny plastic snap-bags. Drowning under the weight of them. Glug. Glug, glug… I find I have written strange notes to myself: Bag up cats – Deliver cats – Wipe and recycle cats. It’s a good thing the actual cats can’t read.

There’s a pebble-man propped up against the poetry in my bookcase. My sister made him for me and posted him from Canada. Pebbles glued on to white board, with additional art-work. I can’t help wondering how those pebbles felt, one minute nestling in brotherly companionship on some Canadian lake shore, say, the next glued to a board and painted round then whizzed into first one then another postal system and ending up for no obvious reason in an English bookcase. Are they homesick?

My neighbour arrives in from his night shift, killing the headlights early so as not to wake the neighbours – those that are not already awake. I hear him attempting to drive quietly on our unmade road, but the potholes, gravel and broken lumps of concrete of which it is composed announced his arrival from the minute he turned into the road. If the Council were to adopt the road it would be surfaced, smooth and luxurious, but our Council Tax would shoot up so we don’t make too much of a fuss.

I lift the corner of the curtain to see if there are any other lighted living-room windows, indicating that other people are about. There are one or two, up the hill and down, but you can never be sure there are actually people in those rooms. They could just have left the lights on to discourage burglars. At one time I worked an evening shift and came in at ten. Sometimes our one and only streetlight was out when I got home and it was a case of groping round the side of the house and through the night garden, trying to find the keyhole with a tiny torch, the key unwilling to fit because I was rushing to get indoors. I was imagining escaped prisoners lying in wait just beyond the bird-feeders, or lurking in the lavender.

And suddenly it is 6.30. Time to feed the cats.