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.

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mice as mums

October 28, 2006

SilverTiger has an engaging post entitled My animals and other family (Part 1)  about cats and tortoises which brought to mind a cautionary tale  from my past about mice. When I was knee high to a rather tall grasshopper we had two mice, Millie and Minnie (characters from Beatrix Potter?)  I made the mistake of trying to keep mice as pets again at the same time as having young children.  All went well until one of the mice gave birth to some babies. A few days later I heard my wife say “Oh, isn’t that sweet, Mummy’s licking her babies.” Then a scream: “She’s not licking them, she’s eating them!!!” My wife claimed that she had nightmares for a week after that in which she was eating her children so a decision had to be made: keep the wife or the mice. I made the wrong choice.

The culture shock on my first visit to the States continued when I entered a shopping centre (I don’t know what you call these) and saw a stern notice saying ‘No Strollers’.I naturally immediately quickened my pace and sped past the shops as if I was on the last mile of the marathon, anxious lest my speed should drop to the point where it coud be considered ‘strolling’. It was only when I noticed that nobody else was racing round the place that I suspected I had misunderstood something. Another misunderstanding came when I heard a news item on the TV about ‘some pacifiers being withdrawn’. I assumed this concerned the UN peace-keeping force in the Balkans and was surprised to see pictures of perfectly healthy looking babies. When I told my American friend that in England if we wanted to keep a baby quiet we got it to suck a dummy, for some inexplicable reason he started laughing. Later, he invited me to ‘wash up’. Now I’m quite happy to help friends wash the dishes but as he had the latest model of dishwasher displayed proudly in his kitchen I asked him why we didn’t use that. Then there was the first time I entered an office and a young man came bounding out proclaiming ‘Hi, I’m Randy’. I didn’t know whether to flee or tell him to go and have a cold shower. I was similarly puzzled when I asked a young lady how she was feeling and she answered ‘good’. It was with difficulty that I was able to resist the temptation to tell her that it was her health I was enquiring after not her morals. Then the first time I hired a car I discovered that it is not only elephants that have trunks, that a flat is not somewhere you live and that a tailpipe was not some form of smoking accessory but what I called an exhaust. After a few trips I thought I had pretty well mastered the language. Then just as I had learned to ask for a ‘cookie’ not a ‘biscuit’ I suddenly discovered that ‘cookies’ are not snacks at all but things your computer picks up when you visit certain web sites. I guess I’ll have to start learning all over again.

Having been made aware that not everyone is completely at home with my peculiar insular brand of English, I thought of retailing a few anecdotes on American and British varieties. The first lot turned out to be more about the cultures than the language so linguists will have to be patient until part 2.
On my first visit to the USA I was flying from Bogota to New York via Miami. In my excitement I had failed to notice the ‘via Miami’ bit and arrived there wearing a thick padded coat ideal for New York winters. At Miami customs I was promptly seized and thoroughly strip searched surrounded by signs warning ‘No Joking’. Every time I was about to say ‘a funny thing happened to me..’ I had to bite my tongue. I was terrified they might try a sting operation and the customs guy might come out with ‘Kock knock…’.Anyway, as I managed to keep a straight face they let me go. In the posh new York hotel the bellboy who insisted on carrying my microscopic travelling bag waited rather blatantly for his tip. I handed over the only bit of American cash I had on me which turned out to be a 50 cent piece. I deduced from his expression that he did not consider this an adequate reward for his services. The other tipping thing that used to bug me was the spooky characters who hung around in public lavatories (sorry, ‘bathrooms’) handing out towels and waiting for their gratuity. I had to give up frequenting these places as a result, which at times cast a cloud over my visit. When I failed to tip a waitress who had, I suspected, deliberately ignored me during my three hour struggle to order a starter of guacamole, she pursued me furiously down the street. Luckily, I was in better shape in those days. Ordering food was also made unnecessarily challenging in my view by the fact that every dish had been given a name like an attraction in Disneyworld. On the behaviour of the waiters and waitresses I would rather not comment except to say that I felt quite embarrassed by having to hear so much about their private lives and the immense joy they had experienced when I walked in the door every time I needed some more water. From New York I proceeded to Atlanta, where I went for a first meal with an Algerian and a Russian who spoke no English. They understood more, however, of the waiters than I did. It was in Atlanta that I first experienced the form of CIA interrogation used by restaurant staff. Having consulted my phrasebook earlier and memorised terms like ‘sunny side up’ and ‘easy over’ I thought I was ready for anything but I was unprepared for the barrage of questions which were designed to extract from me every possible detail concerning the piece of fish I wanted. The interrogation then moved on to the vegetables, by which time my knees were shaking. Just when I thought my tormenters would relent they turned to the subject of bread and listed thirty seven varieties that I was required to choose from. Summoning every ounce of strength I managed to gasp ‘Grandma’s Farmhouse wholewheat’. But they weren’t going to be satisfied as easily as that. Pleading for mercy I was still ordered to choose between butter and fifteen butter substitutes. I chose butter as it was the only word I could pronounce and I hoped it would satisfy them But they had one last fiendish trick up their sleeves. ‘Salted, unsalted or the dairy fresh special?’ If I hadn’t been rescued by my friends there would have been one more victim of torture for Amnesty international to document. And all this was before I was tripped up by the numerous lexical traps that lie in wait for the unwary Brit…..

Obituary: Madeau Stewart

October 6, 2006

Sad to see this morning of the death of Madeau Stewart, who, with A.L. Lloyd, did more than anyone else to make the folk music (as it was then called) of other countries known in Britain. As the Telegraph writes “she took on the task of augmenting the BBC’s early music and non-British folk and indigenous music archives, a job which involved travelling around the world to collect recordings from far-flung parts and gathering in material from itinerant contributors… As an interviewer she was known for her ability to draw out the particular personality of the artist, from the operatic diva to the shy young instrumentalist.” She also rescued the Victoria and Albert’s collection of historic musical instruments which were then languishing in a sadly neglected backwater of the museum’s department of Woodwork and Furniture. I like the image of her given by the Telegraph: “In the early 1960s she spent time on the island of Inch Kenneth, the home of her half-aunt, Lady Redesdale (she was also related to the Mitfords). There she enjoyed sitting on the rocks, playing her flute while seals flocked around her.”
As one of the ‘itinerant contributors’ I owe a debt of gratitude to Madeau for making it possible for me, whilst a penniless student, to go round France recording hurdy-gurdies (then unknown in Britain, nowadays you can buy plastic ones in Tesco). She lent me from the BBC engineering department what was then cutting edge technology, a device that recorded sound on tape(!), worked off batteries and weighed half a ton. She also introduced me to a French countess who took me from Paris to the Auvergne in a 2cv which she drove as if she was on the last lap at Le Mans, showing at the same time an utter contempt for red lights and traffic police. Madeau’s skill and enthusiasm helped to convert my hair-brained scheme into an eventual programme, which she produced, along with one I did ten years later on the music of the Tuaregs, which was broadcast at a particularly quiet time on the BBC Third Programme but nevertheless made quite a stir among connoisseurs of the genre. After she left I made a fruitless proposal of a programme on pre-Columbian music to some suit who didn’t know the difference between a crumhorn and a Tibetan nose flute.

house construction

October 5, 2006

Spotted in the golden boy’s speech at Bournemouth:
“Getting ready for the responsibility of government is like building a house together. Think of it in three stages.

First you prepare the ground.

Then you lay the foundations.

And then, finally, brick by brick, you build your house.”

I am truly grateful to Master Cameron, who has really done his homework on this. I presume he verified his information with the National House-Building Council first. Here was I labouring (oops) under the misapprehension that you put the bricks together first, then worked your way down to the foundations.
Then I remembered my experience of having a house built in Thailand about ten years ago and, would you believe it, he is spot on. In case anyone’s interested, this is how it goes in Thailand. First, I found a plot of land in a new village which was being developed and paid these guys a sum of money towards the house they promsed to build on it. Farangs I spoke to were scathing: ‘you parted with money without even seeing the house, you must be etc etc’ being the most oocmmon reaction. I explained that that seemed the Thai way of doing things and anyway the developer had assured me there would be a house there in 3 months. At that, the farangs fell about in uncontrollable laughter. ‘Three months’, they gasped, ‘it’ll be six before you see anything at all.’ After a few days some men turned up at the site and embarked on what looked like archaeological excavations. They seemed to go deeper and deeper until I got a little concerned that they might have misunderstood my Thai and thought I had asked for an underground shelter. Eventually they returned to the surface, however, and when I pointed out that houses are normally built upwards, explained that this was a process known as ‘laying the foundations.’ The next step in the process was to call in a few monks (you can’t do anything in Thailand without hiring some monks for the day) plus a ghoulish looking man from a neighbouring village who reportedly was on good terms with the spirits and together they blessed the site while we poured in bunches of flowers and fruit, lit candles and tied mysterious bits of string round things. Still, if it kept the spirits happy, who was I to argue? Things went quiet for a few days until one morning work started in earnest with the arrival of a posse of six year old children, their mothers and grandmothers plus a couple of men whose duties consisted of lounging around in a pickup alternately smoking and sleeping. Naturally before any actual work could be done there had to be some serious eating so straw mats were laid out on what remained of the level ground and pots of sticky rice, chilli paste, spicy sausages and boiled vegetables appeared from nowhere. Thais operate the reverse working system to the west, having an eating day punctuated by occasional work breaks. After a while the 6 years olds got bored and started playing with the bricks, then the women joined in under the bored gaze of their menfolk. The kids would run around each with a brick in their hands (yes, I knowingly condoned child labour!) till one of the women grabbed one (brick) and put it in place. Occasionally one of the men would wander down, cast an expert eye on the contruction and move a brick by about a fifteenth of a millimetre. All the time, the gathering looked like a particularly boisterous birthday party with shrieks of laughter and constant bantering adding to the impression that any work done was entirely coincidental. (The Thai word for ‘work’ also, oddly enough, means ‘party’.) One day I turned up as usual and the foreman, or foreperson, greeted me with a broad grin. ‘It’s finished’, she announced. It was two months and a half to the day after I had signed the contract. Sure enough, the thing looked like a house to me, it had walls and a roof and all the other things houses are supposed to have and, in fact, ten years later it still stands exactly where it was built all that time ago. No tiles have been blown off the roof, no walls have cracked, the only damage to the construction having been cause by the cats who enjoy scratching at the mosquito netting.
If you’re reading, David Cameron, I somehow think that your building task might not be quite as plain sailing.

more on bidets

September 27, 2006

The first year I lived in France I rented a room in a flat that had no bathroom. My landlady washed in her bedroom using a large jug which she periodically filled with hot water from the kitchen. I washed in my bedroom, using a large jug which she periodically filled with cold water from the kitchen. Not a bidet in sight. If I needed to obey a call of nature, I scrambled onto the balcony and into a box shaped like a phone kiosk designed for midgets. On completion, you pulled a lever which, on a good day, made an opening through which  whatever you had deposited trundled noisily down the ageing pipes. This was, mind you, a long time ago, shortly, I imagine, after the invention of perfume. Doubtless nowadays the French are amongst  the most thoroughly washed nations on the globe.

When I left, my landlady sent me a postcard on which she had written ‘partir, c’est mourir un peu.’ I sent her one on which I wrote ‘mourir, c’est partir beaucoup.’