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

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

arthur.jpg

Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.

When is a drill not a drill?

My sister up in Stockport has a drill! Canadian brother-in-law informs me reprovingly. She put up all the new shelves in the garage.

Some of us don’t have several garages full of Northern clutter that we need to put up new shelves for. Some of us ladies have an instinctive aversion to drills, chainsaws, Stanley knives – in fact anything that makes a noise and goes round and round or that might accidentally kill, spear or amputate us. I have never met this competent Oop North sister-in-law once removed but have taken an instant dislike to her. I imagine her stiffly permed, sensible-shoed, twin-setted, impressively-bosomed and sounding a little like Les Dawson.

However, now I must buy a drill. The plastic planters I ordered for the garden have turned up not only twice the size they appeared on Amazon but with no drainage holes. Why have they no drainage holes? How many people are there who buy a plastic planter for anything other than planting plants in?

I look at drills on Amazon. What exactly is a hammer drill? Why would a drill need to hammer? Don’t you use a hammer to hammer? What is a drill bit? What is a chuck? What is a chuck key? And what is a torque setting? With a shudder I recall Ex’s longest ever Aspie-type monologue during which, for over an hour, he explained torque to me in minute detail with particular reference to helicopter blades. I thought torque – that dreaded substance – was safely confined to helicopter blades but no – apparently drills have it too.

I don’t want a drill, but I do want holes in my plastic planters. I decide to swallow my pride and phone Ex. Occasionally he will speak to me. I telephone and get My Replacement instead. Instantly flummoxed, my mind still running on DIY equipment, I make a mess of that too. Er, how are you? I ask, remembering that there’s an order of precedence and normal people enquire about one another before demanding advice about drill bits.

But that was wrong. She’s had cancer. It sounds like I’m eager to  hear the worst, though in fact we’ve known each other for a long time and I feel somewhat less animosity towards her than towards that paragon of a Northern sister-in-law. But it sounds wrong. Oh, you know, she says, sounding weak and croaky, So-so. Yes, that was wrong. Why did I phone without working out the conversation first? I can’t do spontaneous.

He’s not available just at the moment, she says. (I can almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s another one, as if he wasn’t bad enough’.) He’s sharpening the chain-saw and if he stops…

Oh no, I say, please don’t interrupt him in the middle of his sharpening…

It’s just that if he stops in the middle he’ll have to start again from the beginning and then he’ll be…

Angry, I say.

Yes, she says. Someone has given him an apple orchard and he’s cutting it down.

Turns out the orchard is many acres of apple trees. The farmer is getting out of the apple business and has donated the many acres of apple trees, though not the many acres, to Ex provided he will cut them down. The work will apparently take five weeks and I can imagine Ex, well into his seventies now, out in the midday sun madly cutting down apple trees with the vim and vigour of a twenty year old. Do be careful, I say, when I finally get to speak to him. Is that fatal heart attack worth it for a lifetime of free firewood, I wonder. But Ex has a logic of his own, absolute and unfathomable.

I need a drill for drilling holes in plastic planters, I say. Can you tell me what sort to get?

He starts off then and half an hour later he’s still going, about the price of drills in Aldi  – Aldi? I thought they were a supermarket – as opposed to the price of drills in Tool Station or Screwfix. I need a step drill, apparently, which adjusts from 4mm up to 20mm. Will I need to make holes bigger than 20mm?

I have no idea what 20mm looks like? Frantically I reach for the tape measure. It’s in inches.

So a step drill – what is that exactly?

It’s a step drill, of course. It drills in steps.

So a step drill is an actual drill?

No, a step drill is a bit you put in a drill.

So why is a step drill called a drill and a drill called a drill too? (Now I can hear myself annoying him, just like I always did.)

And you need to set the torque to a low setting…

Torque! He’s lost me. Nothing more goes in.

Next day, in a DIY store that neither Screwfix nor Tool Station (which I have been unable to find on the industrial estate despite Ex and My Replacement’s detailed instructions) I am listening to a young man with a strange black earring in his ear, in the centre of which a hole so big you could thread a rope through it and lead him around. He is a strapping young man but I am careful not to appear to have noticed that. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I also try to avoid looking at his poor maimed ear, which is making me feel quite queasy.

He is disarmingly honest, this young man, if not a good salesman. Don’t buy one here, he says. The branded ones here are good, but expensive. You don’t want to be wasting your pension on a drill you’re only going to use once a year to drill holes in plastic pots.

(Pension? Rats!)

We do sell cheap ones, he says, but they’re rubbish. Never known anyone to keep one more than a few weeks before bringing them back and complaining. What you need is the lower range of one of the main brands like Silverline, Bosch or (something else) which you can get on Amazon or second-hand on Ebay. You don’t need a hammer drill just a battery-operated standard drill – starter DIY level. And you don’t need to worry about voltage or amps, whatever it say on the box.

It’s a miracle. I am understanding him!

A step drill is a bit, he says. Forget the drill word, it’s confusing. Think of it as just another bit.

Do I need more than one bit? Will I need to get one of those plastic kits full of bits?

No, he says. You just need the step bit and one smaller bit, to get the hole started. The step bit isn’t meant for starting holes, it’s for making them bigger, and we don’t sell those here in any case. Get one off Amazon.

So there it is. I’m not entirely stupid after all. It depends who’s doing the explaining.

The Wild Swans at Coole

I sometimes think schools should be banned from teaching poetry, since there is nothing like being forced to ‘do’ a poem in class to put you off not only the poem but the poet, for life. On the whole, it is not a good idea to analyse a poem at all, à la English Lit.: that’s because you will never want to read that poem again. You’ll have killed it. A poem hits home, in part, because of resonances – that unexamined, unconscious chain of associations we – as the human race and as a particular social group, and you – as an individual – have with a particular word or phrase. Resonances tap into your past, into your emotions, into your childhood, into the deepest parts of your subconscious, but they only work in the dark. Hunt them down and… dead unicorns litter the path through the woods. Haul them up into the harsh, noisy daylight of a school classroom: all you have is a line of words and another twenty minutes before the bell goes for history.

 

My year were forced to ‘do’ Yeats’ Collected Works at school, and it’s taken me all this time to rediscover him, properly.

Looking back, I was lucky that the first Yeats poem I ever heard was not Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which is a lovely poem but tends to appeal to the indiscriminate sentimentality of lovelorn teenage girls. I had a bit of a crush on it myself, at fourteen:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Aedh, by the way, is the Gaelic name of several Irish saints. It is probably pronounced ‘Ede’, although some say ‘Ed’ and in some versions of the poem changed to ‘He’ to avoid banjaxing English readers.

I was lucky in that my English teacher, who was young and actually loved her subject, chose instead The Wild Swans at Coole and somehow or other managed not to ruin it for me. I think it was the first uncompromisingly ‘grown up’ poem I had ever come across. I recognised something in its spare-ness; that cool sorrow:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Those lines where ‘unwearied still, lover by lover’ they paddle the cold companionable streams or climb the air – set bells ringing in my mind. I remember her reminding us, in that loud classroom with chalk-dust dancing in the sunlight, that swans are thought to mate for life. As she read it aloud to us I remember momentarily being in the body of a swan, as Yeats himself must have been, momentarily, when he wrote the poem – knowing what it was like to be in another element, a heavy body but winged, and how to rise in the air must require all one’s strength, the air feeling hard, a force to be overcome, a stairway to be climbed.

I remember a few others that I liked – the one about the yellow hair, for instance:

Never shall a young man,

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear,

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.’

But on the whole I wasn’t ready for Yeats and his Irish-ness. I lived in a small corner of the south-east of England – not even the more cosmopolitan London. I had never heard real Irish or Welsh people speak or come across that musicality, that naturally effortless, fluid, creative use of words. It sounded – he sounded – weird. Over the top. Silly. Normal [English] people just didn’t talk like that.

Rhythm and rhyme are easy to understand, which is why junior schools tend to go for stuff like:

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark –

Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.

This clever, jiggly versifying is hugely entertaining for children. It’s a big step up, skill-wise, from the execrable verses bereaved relatives select from albums to go in the In Memoriam column; the harmless sugary nastiness of birthday-card rhymes or the drivel people use to sell anything from yoghurt to double-glazing.

But Yeats, and all real, grown-up poets go far beyond that. They push language to an edge, almost doing violence to it – and rely on those elusive unicorns in the wood, resonances, to make it work. What they are trying to get to is the sublime – which is beyond me – possibly beyond anyone, to explain. It’s a point where pain and pleasure mix, where awe seesaws on the edge of wonder; nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey, which I still haven’t got round to reading – but maybe there’s a spiritual parallel. They push words and risk all, trusting their readers. They approach what is beyond words, knowing they will fail to reach it; and sometimes a spark leaps across the gap where words are not designed to go; Strange Meeting happens again in no-man’s land.

And that’s what it’s about.

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.

students

I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.