French with tears
November 10, 2006
Toto, manufacturer of the world’s greatest toilet, no doubt derived their name from the leading character in the French textbook I used when I was a kid, written by a wretch named Whitmarsh. Toto had two sizeable handicaps as far as we were concerned. One he was French and two he was a spineless little twerp who invariably ended up doing whatever his authoritarian father and simpering mother asked him to. But he wielded his irregular verbs and subjunctives like we would never be able to. His only sign of independence came in about lesson 3 when, I remember distinctly, “Toto frappe sur la table.” I believe our hero was demanding an extra helping of mousse au chocolat and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get it. It is, of course, possible that his offspring were manning the barricades in ’68 but I somehow doubt it. Our French teacher also had an inveterate hatred of everything French as he was rumoured to have had an unpleasant experience with some Pétainistes during the war. The school was right next to a slaughter house and Monday mornings we had to interrupt the French lesson while the unfortunate beasts were led past. ‘Listen’, he used to say as the cows mooed their last, ‘that’s the sound of the French ‘u'”. His normal method of punishment, meted out mildly if there was some indiscipline and with savage ferocity if someone forgot the passé composé of ‘aller’ was ‘la friction’, when consisted in him rubbing his knuckles vigorously along the skull of the offender. “Si j’eusse partir” some hapless pupil would mutter in response to a question and ther would be a whoop of delight as Mr H bounded over calling out ‘la friction, boy, la friction’. Mr H’s francophobia did not extend, however to other parts of Europe and he always came with us on school trips abroad- as long as we avoided France. On one occasion we were taken to a Heuriger outside Vienna to try the new wine. After severe warnings from the teachers, the boys were on their best behaviour, had a few sips of the sourish liquid and remained steadfastly sober. The teachers, however, had their arms round the young female guides, were singing Viennese drinking songs in a drunken cacophony and ended up falling into a fountain. We sixth formers were not amused. One of Mr H’s colleagues told me that the time the school went to Paris (Mr H did not accompany them) the masters decided to take the boys to the Folies Bergeres as they were pretty sure if they didn’t the lads would find their own way there. The teachers sat with eyes popping out of their heads at the amount of female pulchritude on display then one of them heard a boy whisper ‘ Look at that Rolex, do you reckon it’s genuine?’ The boys were ignoring the goings-on on the stage and were busy ogling the expensive technology on display in the audience. I can tell you, things would have been different in my time. Our exhaustive study of the copies of ‘Health and Efficiency’ which were passed round surreptitiously under the desks would have seen to that. Amazingly, I see that ‘A New Simpler French Course’ by W.F.H. Whitmarsh is stillI in print and available on Amazon (though it is only listed as 261,327th in terms of sales). I must get myself a copy for Christmas to see how old Toto is getting along.