Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Not the Lover that Rhymes with Cover…

I’ve begun to notice interesting developments on social media recently. Some conversation threads have started to engage and pull in Facebook contacts from different spheres.

Take, for instance a news snippet concerning Lover. Lover [correctly pronounced Low-ver and rhyming with Dover] is a tiny satellite hamlet and part of a much smaller village called Redlynch, in the county of Wiltshire, England. For many years Lover post office has cashed in on its oft mis-pronounced name whenever Valentine’s Day became a distant speck on the horizon of February. Would-be beaux, belles and partners have made a habit of flocking to this backwater to post their cards and declarations of love in order to have ‘Lover’ stamped upon the outside of their envelopes.

In 1957, at the age of four I began school life in Lover, walking down through the village with my mother on the very first day only and after that having to accompany my brothers. There was no soft, part-time option, no lollipop person to see us across roads [there was no traffic either], no inside toilets-[a bucket under a wooden seat in a building across the playground sufficed], only two classes-infants and juniors-and thirty seven or so children altogether. We played all together in the playground [schoolyard], did country dancing to the accompaniment of a wind-up record player and played rounders on the field at the back which was shared by a farmer’s dairy herd. Anyone succeeding in attaining a rounder would have to run the gauntlet of cow deposits as well as fielders.

I loved my infant teacher, Miss Hunter with a devotion matched only by my fear of the head-teacher and junior class teacher, Mrs Reardon. Miss Hunter taught us fractions by bringing in a beautiful Battenburg cake that demonstrated halves and quarters. Mrs Reardon violated my fragile confidence by shaming me in front of the class for my ignorance in the mysteries of tracing. Miss Hunter took us for nature walks, holding hands with our partners in a long, snaking crocodile as we learned the names of trees and wild flowers. Mrs Reardon applied soap to the mouth of a small, swearing boy so that he ran around the playground crying and frothing at the lips.

I was in the junior class for a short period, probably no more than a year and yet I spent a good deal of it sitting by an older girl to help her with her grey, English workbook-mortifying for her and tedious for me. Distractions were provided by newts inserted into inkwells [we had to dip our pens into them, never managing to write without the inevitable blot] or someone’s misdemeanour prompting a few whacks across their palms. I laboured over sums involving pounds, shillings and pence or stones, pounds and ounces or yards, feet and inches.

At age seven my family moved to a different part of the country for my father to take up a promotion. There I attended another two-class primary school in a rural area-this time almost remote enough to be another country-but that is altogether another story…

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

The Death of the Pen

Who writes in longhand these days? Well-according to Google [such that it must be true] many famous writers prefer to apply themselves via pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. In my ignorance I should confess to not having heard of all of these acclaimed authors but some I know of and some I’ve read, even. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, J K Rowling and Danielle Steele are some, as is Quentin Tarantino. Those who do prefer hand writing cite more romantic or abstract reasons for wanting to do it this way over practical concerns.

Since letter writing is a dying art, postcards are no longer sent and email and social networking are taking the place of paper communication the skill of making squiggly marks is slowly becoming redundant. How much longer will handwriting be taught in schools? When I began my teaching career in what was then a somewhat tempestuous area of Lambeth, London I learned that I could more or less guarantee a period of peace and calm by chalking something on the blackboard to be copied by all as ‘handwriting practise’.

As a young child in the 1950s I loved the act of writing. I adored all aspects of written work presentation. At school we entered competitions run by the Osmiroid fountain pen company, when a beautiful fountain pen would be the prize for copying a poem in curly cursive script and presenting it without blots or mistakes and surrounded by a hand-designed frame in coloured pencil.

At secondary school they cared little for coloured borders around the writing, wanting only swift note taking into a scruffy ‘rough’ book.

Later I learned calligraphy and produced a number of works as part of my A level art course using a calligraphy pen with a slanting nib and illuminating the first letter of each piece-the entire activity a satisfying kind of escapism that I’ve subsequently forgotten all about.

I am sorry to say that my handwriting, rather than improving with age has deteriorated due to lack of practice. Young members of my family are unlikely to receive cards and letters written in immaculate copperplate as I did from maiden aunts or grandparents on birthdays and at Christmas. Handwriting can be an indicator of age, becoming more wobbly and spidery with the writer’s advancing years so that you can imagine the knobbly, liver spotted, arthritic fingers that laboured over it.

Something strange and magical does happen though, when pen is put to paper. There have been occasions while away and deprived of internet when I’ve been obliged to take to scribbling in a notebook rather than tapping on a keyboard and it has had the wondrous effect of dragging me from the quicksand of writer’s block. Of course I’ve had to decipher the weird and incomprehensible scrawl once returned to the civilised environment of connectivity, but still…

Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

Fiction Month 4. Caught [part 2]

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                 Caught [part 2]

                  Next morning a stiff breeze has sprung up as I stroll up to the village store on the Copseway to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk. On the way I search for the old butcher’s shop that was Ernie Brabrook’s, but almost all the buildings that housed businesses have been converted to dwellings, either having been demolished and rebuilt or their big front windows bricked in and I no longer recall the exact location of Ernie’s place. All I remember is standing inside while my father waited for his order to be prepared, the sawdust floor dusty beneath my feet and the cold, raw carcasses dangling, white on their metal hooks, an odour of chill sweetness and the resonant thwack of the butcher’s cleaver as he prepared chops or steaks.

The store assistant is solicitous. My father will be missed by the community, she says, and how am I getting on with clearing up the house? Feeling heartened by her concern I ask if she knows anything about Imberton Dance Band and the various members. She nods as she packs my purchases into a bag.

“My parents used to go dancing every Saturday. A girl called Mavis used to come and babysit us.”

I take the photo from my pocket and place it on to the counter. She looks closely before shaking her head.

“I can see that’s your Dad, in his young days, and that was his brother. But I don’t know the others I’m afraid. I’d have been too young, I suppose.”

When I mention Dick Abbott a look of recognition springs to her face.

“I was in the same class as June at school. We were a fair bit older than you and your brother I think, so we’d have left to go to the secondary by the time you two were in the juniors’ class. She was sweet, but she was a bit soft, if you know what I mean; not the brightest, but always kind and smiling. It was awful, what happened to her.”

“I heard she died. What was it, illness?”

She purses her lips, looking grave.

“No, nothing like that; she drowned in the brook that runs along the bottom of the field behind the house. ‘Accidental death’ they said it was, although no one knew how she came to be there. She was in her night clothes when they found her; all a long time ago now.”

I take a diversion back to the bungalow, down an old, overgrown footpath that leads to the narrow rivulet behind what was Abbott’s shop, with a dwelling at the rear. We’d dangled jam jars on strings into the stream to catch tiny stickleback, bearing them home triumphantly then being made to return them by our stern parents. The brook is no longer the rushing torrent of my memory, rather a thin trickle, banks overgrown with tall, bushy nettles. I wonder how she could have drowned, here in the shallows where the water is inches deep and the gravel of the stream bed ruffles the flow. Further up the sloping field the back of the house is just visible, changed now; refurbished. A new wire fence provides a barrier before the brook, where none was before. Perhaps she sleepwalked down to the stream and fell, found herself tangled in the undergrowth or mired in some mud. I’ve an image now of her night clad body lying cold in the water under the moonlight, her dark hair loose and mingling with the eddying current, but surely she’d have called for help?

My father’s modest house, the pride and joy of his later life seems diminished now that his furniture and effects are packed up to be distributed or disposed of. The rooms are strewn with cartons of bric-a-brac, books or bin bags full of clothing ready to be taken to charity shops. The walls bear the ghostly shapes of the pictures and mirrors that hung against them. His upright piano awaits collection. This is all that remains of his life. We humans spend a lifetime accumulating objects only to leave them all behind us for another to discard.

I make tea in the ancient ceramic teapot my parents always used. It is lined with a crust of brown stain but to succumb to dunking tea bags into cups feels a betrayal here in their kitchen. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew I ring my wife to tell her I’m almost done with the clearance and I’ll be returning home tomorrow.

I’m about to pour the tea when I catch sight of Arnold Goodridge unlatching the front gate and labouring up the path towards the front door and I think he must have smelt the tea to have timed his arrival like this. He settles into the worn settee with the ease of one who has sat there, in that same spot on many occasions, leaning his walking stick against the arm and placing a bulging manila envelope on the seat beside him. He glances around the room at the bare walls and loaded cartons as he sips the tea, nodding in sage acknowledgement, his chest still heaving with the exertion of his walk.

“Going up for sale, is it?”

“I’m afraid it is, Arnold. The family is too far flung to keep it. I’m hoping to drop the keys with the agent tomorrow, on my way home.”

He puts his cup and saucer on the coffee table and opens the envelope to pass me a few photos. I move to sit next him while he describes each scene. There are more pictures of the band, of course, but also snaps depicting charabanc outings to the seaside, village fetes and family parties, many showing my parents and their friends, the most striking aspect their smiles as they face the camera. It would be easy to assume that their lives were one long holiday on which the sun never failed to shine.

I pore over one shot of the beach, where my parents and another couple, all dressed in their Sunday best, are installed in deck chairs on the sand behind a number of children of varying ages playing with buckets and spades. Amongst the offspring is a young girl of about eleven, with soft, dark eyes, clad in a typically substantial swimming costume of the era, her arm around a sturdy child who I recognise as my brother. He is looking into her face with an adoring smile.

“There’s June,” Arnold offers. “She always did love the littl’uns. She’d have made a good mum if she’d had the chance.”

“Arnold, how did it happen? How come she drowned in the brook? There’s so little water. And why was she wearing night clothes?”

He gazes at the photo as he begins to talk.

“It was like I said. When Dick started stepping out with Mae they was only young, so it weren’t really serious, if you see what I mean. Then she fell pregnant with June and it was all Hell let loose. In them days it was like the end of the world. It weren’t long before that a young couple had drowned themselves in the lake from the shame of it and the fear of being found out. There weren’t any choice for them. Dick had to marry her quick, so when the baby came they could just say it was a bit early, like.

They lived with Mae’s parents to start with. It must have been hard for Dick. He was always a bit of a one for partying, had an eye for the girls. He could of taken his pick of ‘em, too if he’d wanted. But he was stuck with Mae then, and didn’t he know it! She never forgive him for landing her with a baby so young and I don’t think she ever thought he was good enough for her neither.”

“But she must have loved the baby when she came along. June was so pretty and so sweet!”

“She were. She were a cracker! But she were never the brightest, if you get my meaning. She weren’t going to get to college or anything like that.”

“Is that why she ended up helping in the shop when she left school?”

He nodded.

“Mae hated the shop, like everything else. She thought it was beneath her to work behind a counter; didn’t think she should work at all. ‘Course the shop folded in the sixties and Dick retired then. It had never made much money. Customers preferred the stores up on the Copseway and you could see why. Mae drove them all off, with her spiteful tongue and her nasty ways.”

“So what did June do, when the shop closed down?”

“She took up hairdressing, somewhere down Hardwick way I believe it was. Of course she favoured her Dad for looks, so she weren’t short of a few admirers. I think she did do a bit of courting, while her Dad was still alive but nothing serious. Then Dick passed away, a bit sudden. After his funeral no one hardly saw Mae. She stayed indoors, kept herself to herself, and June stayed looking after her. There weren’t no more gentlemen callers because Mae wasn’t having it. She were too scared June would up and get married and leave her. Thing was, with Dick gone she only had her daughter and they used to say in the village that were when June changed, stopped smiling, like. Some said it were because of losing her Dad, but I reckon there were more to it than that. That bitter old witch made her life Hell, that’s the sum of it. She tormented her and bullied her until her life weren’t worth living. And June, she were caught, like in a trap. She’d nowhere to go and couldn’t leave her mother. It got so she couldn’t stand no more. So she took the only way out she could. There were more to the stream in them days, but most folks don’t need a lot of water if they’re determined to drown their selves. You know the rest.”

He puts the photo on the coffee table before looking up. When he catches my expression he puts his hand on my arm, his face softening.

“I shouldn’t of probably told you all that, what with your Dad and all. Not exactly a cheerful story, is it? But you got to remember it were all a long time ago.”

“No, I’m glad you did. And I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and hearing all the other stories.”

On his way out Arnold stops on the path to button up his jacket.

“Know what I reckon?” There is a mischievous gleam in his eye as he adjusts the stick in his grip. I shake my head.

“Them lot in the band, they’ve been up there waiting for your Dad to join them. Now he’s got there they’ll be making heaven jump to the beat with all their tunes!”

Though I don’t share his conviction, the image is so pleasing I have to smile as I thank him again.

 

I wake to an overcast sky, feeling moved to make haste with loading my car and starting on the long drive home. There is little of any monetary value amongst the house contents and nothing of use or ornament to us, the next generation, for whom tastes have changed. I have wrapped and packed the few items my brother and I decided upon as keepsakes; one or two first editions, leather bound, a hand painted tea set, a couple of prints and the box of photographs, which I have volunteered to sort and annotate. Everything else will be removed by a clearance company, leaving the empty shell of the house ready for viewing by prospective buyers. Once I have locked up and pulled the front door shut behind me I know I will not be returning. I pocket the house keys in readiness for the estate agent.

Before leaving the village I pull into the lay by outside the churchyard. I want to spend a few minutes alone by my parents’ grave, an action I doubt my busy life will allow in future. The new plot, freshly piled with earth stands out like a brown scar among the neat, green mounds surrounding it. Soon the simple headstone will bear the addition of my father’s name informing the reader he is ‘reunited at last’ with my mother. There are, as he requested, no bouquets wilting on the soil, donations having been made, instead, to the hospice that cared for my mother. He’d been pragmatic to the last, made all his wishes clear; his only desire to be laid to rest here in the rustic setting of the village churchyard next to his deceased wife.

I have no faith in an afterlife. I believe that our allotted span above the earth is what we get. I know that my parents are not here, under the soil in this country graveyard, nor do they exist anywhere except, for a short passage of time, in my memory. But the shady, green space with its gentle hummocks, vases of chrysanthemums and trailing ivy is a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance. I wind my way through the graves, stopping here and there to read a name and a date where they are visible, not obliterated by algae and age. As I round the corner by the low stone wall I halt as my attention is caught by a simple, marble, upright slab with the inscription, ‘June Elisabeth Abbott, 1945-1978, ‘Resting where no shadows fall’.

I perch nearby on a neighbouring slab. Her plot is overgrown, a joyous carpet of daisies and dusky pink autumn crocuses. A light mist of drizzle has begun to drift down, lifting a rich, earthy aroma from the vegetation. Somewhere close by a robin begins to trill a jaunty song. Then, at last I feel the tears well up and course down my face in hot, salty tracks until I drop my face into my hands and I’m howling, there in the secluded churchyard with the ghosts of my past for company.

After a while, when the tears have drained away I stand and brush the moss from my clothing before walking back through the grassy mounds and ancient stones to the gate. In the car I pick up my phone and call my wife. She asks if I’m alright. I tell her I’ve missed them all; that I love them and I’m ready to come home now. I start the car. When I get home I want to hold them, my wife and children; catch them in my heart and never let them go.

 

 

Where is Your Threshold?

At a party last January a fellow guest, on asking if I was retired wanted to know how I ‘filled my days’. Fill my days? I found this question startling, for my concern is not ‘filling days’ but rather, how to cling on to each day ‘Carpe Diem’ fashion when there are to be less and less of them.

But it is true that many fear retirement for the boredom that may ensue. Most ‘take up’ activities, golf, good works or learning something. You hear stories of failing marriages as couples get under each other’s feet when precipitated into close proximity for so much of the time.

The Offspring are fond of recalling well-known phrases and sayings from their childhood that seem to have been uttered by their mother with monotonous regularity. Among these is ‘I wish I had time to be bored’-my retort to any complaints regarding ennui they may have had. And I did wish it. With a full-time teaching post, two small children and a house to renovate I did fantasise about having the time to play solitaire, file my nails or watch the gloss drying on the skirting boards.

The fact is, as a generation I think we were taught as children to tolerate boredom. I have early memories of rising on Sunday mornings, polishing my shoes and traipsing down through the village with my brothers to Sunday School. I realise now, of course that this was no more than a cunning ruse on the part of my parents, who felt no need to accompany us, to snatch a sneaky child-free hour or two. Sunday School was deadly dull and set the bar for Church, which ensued when we became too old for Bible stories in the vestry.

Church services were a masterclass in boredom. What was there to do, once you’d scrutinised your fellow worshippers, found the hymns in the book, fiddled with the tassels on the hassock, shredded the sweet wrapper in your pocket?

School assemblies came close and were exacerbated by the excruciating discomfort of sitting for aeons on a cold, hard floor. But the boredom they provided amounted to a theme park ride compared to the crushing tedium that was ‘Speech Day’-thankfully only once a year, but a feast for connoisseurs of monotony.

School lessons themselves seemed to have been planned with boredom in mind. A gowned teacher would appear in the room, at which we would stand up; they would mount a small podium and sit, at which we would sit. They would open a file and read ‘notes’ from it, demanding that we, the unhappy, captive addressees would write it all down in our ‘rough’ books. What an impressive frittering of time it all was! Compare this method to teaching strategies of today, where teachers must compete with screens, swing from chandeliers, use fancy dress or formulate elaborate scenes to grab children’s attention!

That today’s preoccupation with saving children from boredom is laudable is in no doubt-nevertheless I, personally have never found the occupation of time to be a problem, so maybe it was all that early training?