South London tried its hand at snow today (Sunday) without much success. The alternating snow-rain-snow combo isn’t going to work, weather-people. It did generate a little brolly-flattery as we walked Dog, with a passer-by calling out ‘nice umbrella’ to the Textiliste.
As happens at these moments the word ‘parapluie’ popped into my head. Umbrella in French, if you’ve not been keeping up. I love that word; there’s something delightful about it.
But as we walked on, in the sleety-mush, other memories of French and being taught it at school in the early 1970s crept back to me and, with it, a case of PHT. Public Humiliation by Teacher. I’m sure today’s educators have other tricks up their sleeves as part of their armoury – wit, debate, tazers… – but back then sarcasm was a staple method to encourage a pupil to work harder.
My Life In French has been a roller-coaster that mainly goes downhill at tremendous speed. I was gifted a problem, of course – naturellement – in my surname which has a soupçon of the French about it. Can you spot it?
Good. Well done, class.
The trouble is, I’m very much not French. There is none of this La Manche crap about my very English Channel, merci buckets. My ancestry has a French component, persecuted out of there in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. But the ability to conjugate ‘avoir’ with anything other than a grimace did not come naturally. Indeed, from talking to my next door neighbour in an early French lesson, circa 1969, I was made to write out the present tense of avoir 100 times. I will go to my grave hating that sodding verb.
When I reached the third form, I was placed in the ‘adequate’ set for French, somewhere below those stars who could sound out the French alphabet and just above those whose principle skill set meant they could mimic French farm animals with a convincing accent. And here began the humiliation.
I don’t know how it is done today but French back then comprised four elements: the spoken word eg the oral; dictation; French to English translation; and its counterpoint, English to French. Here are four examples from the years 1972 to 1974, covering each section.
English to French: in my mock O level, the short piece I had to translate included the sentence: ‘Father used his lawnmower’. Now, call me a fusspot but who in their right mind, aged 15, is going to know the English for lawnmower let alone the French. Tondeuse, if you are really interested, a word I now know off by heart as it was written – no, make that embedded – into my paper by a clearly irritated Peter Taylor, my less than patient French master. Now, give me credit; I don’t like to leave gaps so, in place of whatever the bloody word was I profferred coup de l’herbe which roughly translates as blow of the grass. Mr Taylor gave me no leeway or credit for imagination.
Oral: I was seriously crap at speaking French, and my ear for the language is, still, less than sharp. So when, during one session I had to be told I could go, in English, you knew the writing was on the wall.
Dictation, or dicté: as above I never could work out what was being said. Every Thursday we had to listen to a French broadcast: ‘Ecoute Moi!’ and, for our homework, write out the same story in our own words. This challenge was beyond most of us, the best hope being to scribble down such of the phrases we could pick up during the lesson, and weave them into some semblance of a tale in the hope we were at least working in the same genre if not actually telling the same story. This particular week involved a policeman (Le Flic) warning a little old lady about some yobbos (les blouson noir). He told her: Don’t open the door to anyone. Now, as I listened I had no clue that what he was saying was: N’ouvrez la porte à personne. All I could do was have a stab. This led to the ultimate in PHT: a three exclamation mark marginal note and a call out in class that went something like this:
Taylor: Some of your attempts at this week’s homework were woeful. Pathetic
Class (sotto voce – note the wide linguistic skills I am now displaying): Some poor sod is about to get it
Taylor: What, for instance do you think this means (He begins to write on the board)
Class: Oh dear someone is really going to get it (many eyes scan room for likely victim)
Taylor: (having finished writing stands back revealing)
Nous Vrai La Porte A Personne
Taylor: So, Le Pard pray enlighten us on what this means? (He sniggered, a real snot inducing snigger). Let me see… Yours Truly The Door To Nobody perhaps?
The sod knew – of course he did – what I meant. I wasn’t that far off. I was quite proud, in retrospect that I’d fished out the à personne from the alphabet soup I was wrestling with. But I wasn’t allowed to forget my howler. Pah!
French to English: at some point we had a passage to translate – I’d worked out the MP of the piece was by a river when, from his bag he extracted une canne à pêche. Even I can see, in hindsight, that the likely translation is a fishing rod but in the blurry panic that were French classes I latched onto the canne a little too enthusiastically and released into the wild corners of my paper the suggestion that he extracted a can of peaches from his bag, which he proceeded to toss into the river. Why our hero should bring a tin of fruit all the way to the river only to throw it away did not occur to me – this was something in French and necessarily abstruse and perplexing.
For reasons I cannot now recall I took French to A level. Somehow I managed a B at O level but that was to be my peak. When the A level results came out I’d repeated my success at O level – in that I’d been awarded another O level, a gratuitous piece of rubbing-my-nose-in-dog-dirt compensatory marking that was handed out to those who passed every paper bar one – in my case the dreaded oral for which I apparently scored under ten per cent.
My lack of any linguistic abilities has not held me back. For sure I come across as half-witted when in any jurisdiction where English is not the first language.
But at least I was present when Mr Taylor had his comeuppance, courtesy of Melissa Courtney.
Melissa was in the same set as I was at A level and Taylor taught us occasionally. We were working on a piece of theatre that eventually saw the light of day as a school play and he was desperately trying to have Melissa say ‘feuille‘ – a difficult word to say in French – with just the correct inflection.
In those far gone days, I attended a trendy sixth form college and we sat in a semi circle using modern plastic chairs with a table that folded up at the side. When unfolded the chair/table combination did rather trap you.
Taylor, as was his wont, lent on the table and breathed the correct pronunciation into Melissa’s face. She tried to squirm back as far as she could. Poor thing had a slight disability in that, in certain circumstances her hip could dislocate. If it did she had no choice but to twist sideways and straighten her leg. Quickly.
Everything, at these moments, happens so fast but in fact seems incredibly slow. As her leg shot out, her heel – we were on trend for 1974 and she was wearing four inch stacks – buried itself into his groin. We couldn’t be entirely sure but, from his expression and the register at which his voice was subsequently pitched, it is a fair guess to say his testicles were rammed home, with much the same panache that one might see for the winning black at the end of a hard fought snooker tournament.
As he staggered back, I appreciated spoken French for perhaps the first time as the debollocked Mr Taylor used merde and foutre both in context and colloquially.
PS, for anyone who is French, speaks French fluently or at least reads it to passable standard and you find errors and omissions here, all I can say is bully for you and keep your smart-arsery to yourself. There is no need for the facts to debunk a good story…