Barfield School: 4 – A Miniature Grand Tour

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Michael’s application to go on a teacher exchange has been refused. By way of compensation he plans a summer holiday tour of France.

English SchoolIt must not be imagined, however, that our young man was an adventurer of the physical kind: for he had never yearned to face the challenges of steaming jungles, scorching deserts, icy wastes and vertiginous heights. He was more an adventurer of the mind: what thrilled him above all was the exploration of the manners, customs, forms and codes of a culture significantly different to his own and mastering the language which gave access to it. He was fully aware that a trip of this kind had to be carefully thought about and planned in detail. Fortunately, Bridgeford had a large Central Library with a well-stocked section of books on foreign travel, and he had devoured all they had to offer on those more frequented regions of France. There were so many things to discover that he’d have to be selective. But gradually a route began to trace itself out in his mind. It was in no way rigid and he had resolved that if along the way he was presented with anything of unforeseen interest he would have no hesitation in deviating from his plan. And as far as accommodation was concerned the choice was simple: his nights would be spent in camping sites and youth hostels. Not only did arrangements of this nature facilitate informal human contact but they had the advantage of being reasonably priced – though he’d have to invest in a small tent, a sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress and camping stove as well as join the international Youth Hostel Association.  But as the time came near the thrill of excitement he’d felt at the prospect of new adventure was tempered by the apprehensive realization that this would be his first lone venture into a relatively unexplored country.

And now in his more dreamy moments of leisure he would relive the route he had followed, the things and places he had seen and those memorable little incidents that had happened on the way. The planned starting point in France had been Normandy and, after driving down from  the North of England he’d taken the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. From there he’d driven to the historical town of Rouen visiting Claude Monet’s Cathédrale Notre Dame, the Place du Vieux-Marché  where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake, and the house where Pierre Corneille first saw light of day. He’d then made for that picturesque port of Honfleur before taking the direction of Bayeux where he’d followed spellbound the fabulous tapestry representation of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. And the afternoon had been spent exploring the steep ruelles of that Wonder of the Western World, the Mont Saint-Michel. Then on to Brittany with a first stop in Saint-Malo, the legendary home of pirates and explorers before continuing via Brieuc, Lannion and Morlaix in the direction of that spectacular, most westerly promontory of France, the Pointe du Raz. He’d next taken a south-easterly direction through Concarneau, Lorient, Quiberon to the Loire Valley where he’d visited the historic towns of Angers, Orléans and Tours, and the grand châteaux of Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Amboise. And he’d also made a detour to Chinon and had climbed up to the ruins of the castle where in 1429 Joan of Arc had persuaded the dauphin Charles VII to help her in her divinely-sanctioned mission to raise the siege of Orléans and boot the English out of France. After he’d headed south-west to Poitiers, then on to Angoulème and Merignac and down to the Basque towns of Bayonne and Biarritz.  After, turning south-east he’d followed the foothills of the Pyrenees through Pau and Tarbes to the spectacular fortified town of Carcassonne and then on to Narbonne, Montpellier, Nîmes, Arles, Aix-en-Provence and Marseille before driving north up the Rhône Valley through Mâcon, Beaune and Dijon, taking in some famous Burgundy vineyards on the way. And then it was north-west to Troyes, Reims, Compiègne and finally back to Dieppe where he took the ferry back home.

And he couldn’t help smiling with fond amusement at an incident which stood out in his mind. It had happened at the very beginning of his trip. From Newhaven to Dieppe there were two sailings per day – a morning and an early evening one. Since he had to drive all the way down from the North of England to Newhaven he’d decided to take the evening one which was scheduled to arrive in Dieppe at around 11 p.m. The problem was that at this late hour it would be impossible to book into a camping site or Youth Hostel. So where could he spend the night? The simple answer was that he would camp in the wild. After driving off the ferry he would head out of Dieppe and after a few kilometres turn down some country lane which would certainly lead to a field where he could pitch his tent. It was true he would have preferred this first experience of camping to have taken place in circumstances more regulated and visible; and he couldn’t help feeling slight apprehension at the thought of spending his first night in France with only a thin stretch of fabric around and above him. He had, however, found some comfort in the self-persuaded view that any danger involved in spending a few nocturnal hours in such an exposed configuration lay solely within the confines of an alarmist imagination. So, after landing he’d driven out of Dieppe as planned and proceeded for a few kilometres in the direction of Rouen before taking a narrow hedge-lined lane off the Route Nationale. He soon came to a gate which opened onto a field. The moon was hidden by clouds and the night was particularly dark, and he could only glimpse the occasional subdued star lurking above. He pitched his tent by torchlight, slipped into his sleeping bag and fell into an uneasy sleep. The sun was just rising when he was woken by strange trampling sounds. He could see great, looming shadows through the east-facing side of the tent. And suddenly its whole structure began to sway. It was with some trepidation that he’d scrambled out – only to find himself submerged by a herd of grazing Normandy cows!.

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Early French Days

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Beret-topped FrenchmanIt was at the age of eleven that I began to learn French at secondary school. But even before, in my last year at Primary School when my Mum told me I’d be learning French at my new school I’d felt a flutter of excitement, mingled with curiosity, at the prospect of soon being able, if not to set foot in a land which I already perceived as being mysteriously different to my own, but at least to view it distantly through the telescope of its language – despite the fact that the children’s comics of the time frequently portrayed the Frenchman as a shady, beret-topped, thin-moustached fiend who’d take advantage of the slightest opportunity to stab the upright, blond-haired Englishman in the back. But the first traceable sign of a budding love affair was when we began our French lessons. However, I can’t say that things got off to the best of starts. For my linguistic apprenticeship had been placed in the hands of a dry, stern, elderly schoolmaster (a Mr Poulson by name) who seemed not only to make a point of never speaking to his pupils in French but succeeded in mystifying (and boring) us all for the first two or three weeks by attempting to drill into us (without the slightest explanation as to what it was all about) the phonetics of the language: the spoken language was broken down into its individual sounds to each of which was attributed an odd-looking symbol (so strange, in fact, that I remember seriously asking myself whether, by some mysterious process, learning French first involved mastering the letters of the ancient Greek alphabet).  And for the next two weeks or so our lessons consisted in Mr Poulson suspending a phonetic chart on a hook above the blackboard and then pointing to each symbol with a rather vicious-looking cane – the intimidating appearance of which was enough to persuade the class to chant in perfect unison the corresponding sounds, after which individual boys were randomly summoned to stand up and repeat in the same manner. So it was with a feeling of immense relief on the part of us all when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the body of phonetics was buried – never again to be exhumed – and a new life was infused into French lessons by the distribution of what I can only infer was the standard textbook of the day. And I couldn’t avoid thinking that here again  – from a strictly pedagogical point of view at least – nothing in it really encouraged an eleven-year-old to take more than an enforced interest in the language. For the method consisted in presenting a living tongue in much the same way as one long since deceased: each chapter contained a lesson on one aspect of the then barely penetrable mysteries of elementary French grammar, exemplified by a short, simple, non-phonetic text in French. Chapter 1, for example, began with a basic presentation of the subject pronouns: je, tu, il, elle, nous, vous, ils and elles. The following chapter placed the corresponding affirmative forms of the verb être next to each: je suis, tu es, il est, etc., after which we were treated to the even more mysterious intricacies of the interrogative and, above all, negative form (having to place a ‘ne’ before the verb and a ‘pas’ after it in order to say something as simple as ‘not’ left me in a state of wondrous perplexity). The only concession ever made to the fact that we were learning a language which could be conveyed by mouth as well as pen took place during the first part of the lesson when Mr Poulson, using very much the same method as the one applied to inculcate the phonetic sounds, obliged us to chant in chorus, and then individually, the conjugations of the various forms – the only difference of note being that, instead of simply pointing his cane at symbols on a chart, it was waved imperiously in front of us with much the same jerkily precise movements as a choir master imparts to his bâton. The rest of the lesson was devoted to doing the written textbook exercises on the grammatical point in question (including English sentences for translation into French), one of which we were usually given to do at home.

Caning handBut it was the ‘learning’ homework we feared the most. This consisted in us committing to memory the conjugations of some of the more malicious ‘irregular’ verbs (how the verb ‘aller’ could undergo so radical a change as to become ‘je vais’, ‘tu vas’, ‘il va’,’ etc, defeated all my logic). But the most harrowing part was yet to come. For the following lesson always began with a control test – designed to root out the less rigorous among us – which consisted in writing out what we’d been set to learn by heart at home. We then swapped copies with our neighbour for marking. And even though a relatively generous tolerance of five mistakes was granted, anything above was the object of merciless sanction: the offender was sternly commanded to step out to the front of the class, hold out a trembling hand – to which was applied as many vigorous strokes of the cane as the mistakes he had made beyond the permitted margin of five.

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Barfield School – Part 3

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English SchoolPart 3 of Bradfield School, the first book in my trilogy To France with Love. Though Michael suffers a deep disappointment in his quest to spend a year in France he manages to find temporary consolation.

It wasn’t his first application. During the year Michael had spent training to become a teacher he was lucky enough to have had a former French schoolmaster as a tutor. In addition, not only was Mr Naylor (for this was his tutor’s name) from the same Northern English county as Michael but, by a remarkable coincidence, at the start of his educational career had taught the language at a school in the very same town of Barfield. He could, therefore, given other conditions, have been his own teacher of French. And for Michael this combination of circumstances had stamped their relations with a sort of privileged affinity which was not lacking in admiration, though mingled with envy on his part. Mr Naylor had obviously spent some considerable time in France; for as far as our young man could judge, he spoke French to perfection (he couldn’t detect the slightest trace of an English accent), and bore both a B.A. (Hons) and a licencié ès lettres after his name.  And even, though he was now elderly and approaching retirement his enthusiasm for  France and French had remained intact. And somewhere he had rekindled in Michael the desire to renew relations with a country and language for which he’d felt an attraction from an early age but which a mixture of extraneous circumstance and personal choice had over the previous two years led him to neglect. And so one day he had confided in Mr Naylor that, after qualifying as a teacher, he’d like to spend a year at a French lycée as a language assistant, and had asked him if he knew of a way to achieve this aim. Mr Naylor had advised him to make enquiries with an official bureau located in London, specializing in the organization of educational visits and exchanges, and had supplied him with the name and address. Michael had promptly written, only to be informed that as a graduate teacher he would not be eligible to go as an assistant but, as a qualified language teacher he might be able to spend a year teaching English in a French lycée as part of a recently agreed official language teacher exchange scheme between the two countries. He’d resolved to go into more detail once he’d obtained his diploma and was settled in a teaching job. And last year – his first at Barfield School – he had applied. He’d sent his application off in the middle of November and four months later the answer had arrived. His application had been refused. It was felt that applying during a first year in teaching was too premature. It had occurred to him that it might have been a hesitant reference from Headmaster Fowler that had put this spoke in his wheel. Though he did gain some comfort from reading that any future application might be viewed in a more positive light he was bitterly disappointed.

It was in no way a substitute but simply a temporary compensation which shortly after had prompted in him the idea of spending most of the following summer vacation on a miniature Grand Tour of France; for he was determined to go on the teacher exchange and if he hadn’t succeeded this first time he would try, try and try again. Meanwhile, he was thrilled by the feeling of adventure such a trip inspired. Not only would it provide him with the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with the country, meeting French people and speaking the language but it would allow him to see for himself just a few of those so many things he’d heard, read or simply dreamed about: Normandy, Brittany, the Châteaux de la Loire, the vignobles of Bourgogne and Bordeaux, the tasting of a multitude of unknown cheeses sprang to mind. And wouldn’t it serve as a prelude to that promise of a Great Adventure which a year-long sojourn implied?  He had, however, not included Paris in his plans. He’d already visited the city and seen its sights during the course of a school trip some years ago and he didn’t share that romantic image which many foreigners have of the capital: for he couldn’t quite reconcile the conflicting thought that while many foreigners dreamed of living in this City of Light an appreciable number of its inhabitants dreamed of getting out.

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Barfield School – Part Two

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English SchoolBarfield School is the first, soon-to-be published book in my trilogy To France with Love. It features a young teacher, Michael Morgan, who teaches French in an English school. He dreams of adventure and a new start to life and has applied to go on a year’s teacher exchange to France. The success of his application will depend very much on his headmaster’s reference.

Headmaster Fowler was almost unanimously disliked by his teaching staff. He was even detested by some. Rumour had it that he’d been a ship’s captain in the Royal Navy before abandoning sea and embarking on an educational  career. Though no definite proof of this had ever emerged there were reasons for lending it credibility. For one thing Mr Fowler seemed incapable of parting to his speech that subtle warmth of intonation which goes to prevent a politely-phrased request from assuming very much the ring of a cold, peremptory order. And his permanent insistence on the scrupulous respect of rules had a sharp sartorial list. Not only had parents been given firm warning that their progeny must present themselves fully attired in the prescribed school uniform but they were made unequivocally aware that the slightest deviation would result in them being escorted straight back home. And the wearing of jeans was perceived as something akin to mutiny – so much so that in those days when selective corporal punishment was still allowed in English schools, repeat offenders ran the considerable risk of finding themselves on the receiving end of a firmly-applied caning. And the teachers themselves did not totally escape Headmaster Fowler’s obsession with vestimentary uniformity. For though his powers didn’t go so far as allowing him to dictate in any great detail how his teaching staff must dress, they did enable him to issue firm directives on what they weren’t permitted to wear; and for some reason he himself could perhaps not clearly explain he’d decreed that boots and slacks were inappropriate coverings for female legs. On the men he’d inflicted the compulsory wearing of what he vaguely termed ‘classically-cut trousers’ which had, in all circumstances, to be accompanied by a suitable jacket and tie worn over – even in Summer – a long-sleeved shirt. But though it was admitted that the latter might be soberly striped or checked, its background colour could only be white or, in the most extreme of cases, one of the lighter shades of grey.

But though Mr Fowler’s impositions supplied a daily subject of indignant staffroom conversation, nobody dared defy him to his face; for as an English school headmaster the almost arbitrary power he had over his teachers’ present professional comfort and future career prospects alarmed them into outward deference, if not subservience. And Michael was no exception. Last December a staff Christmas lunch had been laid on in the staffroom the day school broke up for the holidays. The French assistante – a short, plumpish, unattractive girl of pied noir extraction – was sat reading a magazine when Fowler came marching in. Michael thought she’d been invited to the lunch with them; but on seeing her Fowler had taken him to one side and said, ‘We don’t want her cluttering up the staffroom while we’re having our Christmas meal. Just tell her to disappear, will you?’ He’d been both shocked and embarrassed by this display of rude insensitivity but had meekly complied – with as much of an apologetic tone as he could muster. But even though the humiliation was certainly felt, it was not expressed; for the poor girl had walked out without a murmur. He’d hated himself even more than Fowler for this spineless display of servility.

The only teacher to have shown something approaching downright subordination was Dave. Dave was a newly-married English teacher, fresh from Training College, who’d started at the same time as Michael. A couple of weeks ago Fowler had strolled into the staffroom where Dave was enjoying a free period, and asked him if ‘he’d be a good chap and run along and pace out the gym.’ Dave had pointed out with some indignation that it wasn’t a teacher’s job to do this kind of work, and that if he wanted to know the dimensions of the gymnasium the caretaker was the person to ask. Fowler had marched out in a huff. But Dave was enraged by the demeaning nature of the request, and was still just as adamant he’d been in the right. Michael, along with most of his colleagues, admired him for his display of defiance. And he couldn’t help wondering what he’d have done had he been in Dave’s position. He was far from excluding the fact that he would have meekly obeyed. He did, however, draw some consolation from the fact that his compliance would have been mainly due to a desire not to come into direct conflict with the Head. For he’d applied for a second time to The Bureau for Educational Exchanges in London for a place on the teacher exchange scheme to France, and had just sent off the corresponding application. He knew that Headmaster Fowler would shortly be solicited for a reference and wanted to avoid anything that might remove him from his good books.

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