And he was still liable, more than two years later, to mull over in some detail what he’d considered as the straw that broke the camel’s back. The event dated back to the beginning of his second working year and had acted as the irrevocable confirmation that it was as inconceivable for him to adapt to this type of job as it is to defy that law of geometry which states that a square peg can never be made to fit snugly into a round hole. He’d interviewed a young woman with a baby to manage a small off-licence in one of the city’s more popular suburbs. During the interview she’d informed him that she was the sister of a well-known pop-singer of that time. It had served to reassure him. Though he’d expressed some reserve regarding her ability to manage the shop while at the same time having to look after a six-month-old baby she’d assured him there would be no problem: she had plenty of relatives in the neighbourhood who would take care of it during the day, and her husband would be there to help in the evenings. Her spouse, she added, was ‘Jewish’. He remembered thinking this odd as her baby had frizzy black hair and a dark complexion. But he’d thought no more about it and, since she seemed keen on the job he decided to give her a chance. It was a horrible mistake. Almost immediately the takings began to drop and though he’d visited every day, this quickly assumed dramatic proportions. Now each off-licence was fitted with a small safe in which takings were placed at the end of each day, and, for obvious reasons of security, managers were instructed to bank the accrued amount once it had reached a pre-determined figure. To this effect the brewery provided dedicated paying-in slips on which the manager indicated the relevant amount and the date on which it had been paid in. The bank itself, of course, stamped the slip as proof that the money had actually been deposited with them on this specific date. So Michael decided to count the money in the safe. It amounted to only the previous evening’s takings. She assured him that she’d paid all prior takings into the bank the afternoon before. On asking her for proof in the form of the paying-in slip she told him she’d lost it. He’d immediately gone to the bank – only to be informed they had no record of the transaction. It was now becoming horrifyingly clear that she was both a thief and a pathological liar.
So he went back to the brewery in order to consult a list of temporary replacement managers before giving her notice of her dismissal and organizing a lock-out. But when he went back in the early evening not only was she looking extremely sorry for herself but she had multiple bruises on her arms and face along with a spectacular black eye. It was obvious she’d been on the receiving end of a thorough beating. And he could only surmise that the culprit was the man standing next to her: for her ‘Jewish’ husband was, in fact, a beefy, furious-looking West Indian (the city had a large Jamaican population). For a moment he feared he was going to suffer a similar fate but the husband’s wrath seemed directed solely at his wife. It crossed his mind that, even if the punishment was brutally expeditious, it at least suggested that the husband was far more honest than his spouse. After doing his best to placate him Michael had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and had beaten a hasty retreat. He’d come back just before the evening opening time with a replacement manageress, had taken the young lady to one side and quietly informed her of her dismissal. Perhaps she had some remorse as tears began rolling down her cheeks. Fortunately her husband was absent. It was from this moment onwards that he became obsessed by the desire to get out.
Michael continues to relate his sobering experiences in his first job as a brewery tied-house supervisor.
He was soon to admire the speed and accuracy with which the stock clerks and especially the stock takers could count and add up. And it was a source of amazement to him that, in spite of the humdrum, repetitive nature of their work and the permanent concentration it required the stock takers at least seemed to enjoy their job. He’d put this down to the fact that they’d all been stock clerks previously and for them it was promotion. But, above all, he reckoned, it was due to the independence the job gave: for not only was each stock taker supplied with a small company car but, since they posted the result of each day’s work back to the brewery at the end of the day they only had to go into the office on Monday mornings when they were given the ten or more stock sheets for the pubs and off-licences they were required to take stock of during the week. As part of his training course to become a tied-house supervisor he did a four week stint working as a stock clerk after which he went round with an experienced stock taker before being allowed to take stock alone. He had previously viewed with some scorn this grinding work which he himself described as ‘counting your life away’, but the experience proved to be a lesson in modesty; for he was absolutely hopeless in both jobs – much to general incomprehension at the brewery where nobody could understand why a supposedly intelligent university graduate couldn’t even count and add up! And he himself never really understood why, for he always made an effort to do the job well. But as he was later to analyze, the difficulty lay in the fact that you had to establish some form of compatibility between two seemingly irreconcilable things: to permanently apply the whole of your concentration to an activity of a mindless, repetitive nature.
And so, if an inventory showed that a manager’s performance fell short of pre-calculated expectations it was part of Michael’s job to give him a stern warning and sometimes, in order to limit the accumulated proportions which these losses could assume, to recommend that stock be taken at shorter intervals – every week, or in some extreme cases, every day. If thereafter the tied house’s profit margins didn’t return to normal Michael simply informed the manager of his dismissal. But what made matters worse was that this kind of announcement could give rise to dramatic scenes where reactions could range from a deluge of tears to explosions of fury. For the manager and his family lived on the premises, and depriving him of his job also meant placing them in the unfortunate and sometimes desperate position of having to seek a new abode. And here lay another problem: since the brewery was legally obliged to give the offending manager one month’s notice of his dismissal, nothing stopped him from continuing to ‘fiddle’ or to steal stock during this period. To prevent this, what was termed a ‘lock-out’ was implemented: a locksmith was called in to change the locks on all the doors leading from the living quarters to the pub so that the manager was physically prevented from acceding to his previous place of work. A temporary manager living off the premises was then called in to replace the one who had been fired, and on expiration of the latter’s four weeks’ notice this substitute manager or a newly appointed one moved in. Michael had found himself temperamentally unequipped to resist finding these situations at best highly unpleasant, at worst acutely distressing.
The concept you have of your inner self is, of course, determined to a great extent by the environment in which you evolve and your perception of the image others have of you. In this respect language – that verbal garment we are obliged to don in our self-presentation to others – plays, I think, the most important part. For nothing says more about you than the way you express yourself. Even though I did set myself the perfectionist’s ideal of speaking the language like a Frenchman I think that, in spite of my best efforts to reach it, in the absolute my goal was unattainable. For though I’m frequently told I could almost (it’s the little words which hurt the most) be taken for a French native speaker, I’m convinced that, with the exception perhaps of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual context from your very earliest years. Since I began learning French at the relatively advanced age of 11 and, in addition, was subjected to old-school translation methods more adapted to the teaching of a dead language than a living one, I’ve never been quite able to rid myself of an accent which, though I’m told is ever so slight, is enough to make me frustratingly aware that I never have, and never will completely fulfil my initial aim. For despite the fact that it doesn’t readily betray my English origins, my accent frequently prompts strangers to politely enquire whether I’m Swiss (I live near a Swiss border) or Belgian. And only the other day someone asked me if I was French Canadian! So, in my experience once you’ve been tagged as English (even though for me this has always been an advantage in France), you’re never really allowed to forget it.
And I can’t help thinking that when conversation goes beyond the repetitious banalities of everyday life what is expressed by me in French could be better said in English, and I’ve finally had to resign myself to the fact that the former is a language I have gradually acquired. As a result it requires a greater effort of concentration and attention, not only in regard to what you yourself are attempting to express but to what your conversational partners are saying. For in discussions of a more cerebral nature thoughts get cluttered with questions like ‘Is what I’m going to say grammatically correct?’ ‘Was that the right word I just used?’ ‘Is that noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce that word correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand all he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of a native speaker with regard to the standard of your own linguistic efforts. When I’m speaking English, on the other hand, since I myself am able to judge the quality of my language, my mind is free of all these niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much nearer together so that I can talk and at the same time think ahead about what I want to communicate. So speaking an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating. That’s why being a writer in your native language can bring a kind of relief. And going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a few days – gives me the opportunity not only of seeing my family (I’ve long since lost all contact with my former English friends), but re-finding my roots. Somewhere in my own eyes this refreshing breathe of fresh native air resuscitates the dormant Englishman in me. But one thing I can never understand and which is perhaps a reflection of the two persons that now dwell in me is that when I watch a France-England rugby match in France I’m for the English – whereas when I’m in England I’m wholeheartedly behind the French!
I frequently recall the words of my old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who used to say that his ability to speak a foreign language fluently had enabled him to lead two distinct lives. In my own case I would go even further and say that more than 40 years of uninterrupted expat living in France have transformed me into two almost distinct people: for I don’t perceive the French version of Barry Whittingham as being quite the same as the English one – so much so that this gave me the idea of writing my first book François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS which looks at the French and English – especially in their everyday lives – through the eyes of a split-identity ‘Frenglishman‘, each of whose French and English extremes can take control of the whole. Even though I don’t think I’m suffering from a case of Multiple Personality Disorder, I can’t help reflecting on some of the reasons which might go to explain why a long-standing expat Brit like me doesn’t have quite the same perception of himself in France as he does in England.
I think that, in my own case at least, the main explanation can be found in the fact that the initial challenge I set myself on settling in France was to immerse myself so totally in the everyday life, culture and language of the country as to become as much of a native as I possibly could. One of the things this involved was having the least possible contact with my countrymen and women. But don’t get me wrong. This in no way stemmed from a desire to deny my English origins (which I’ve always been proud of, and which I’ve always found to be an advantage in France), but from what might be called a sense of adventure which filled me with an irresistible urge to give myself another dimension by becoming part of a culture perceived as being excitingly different to the one I knew, and for which I had felt a constant attraction from the age of eleven when I had begun learning the language at school. In addition, the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies had left me with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons which I won’t go into here my original aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen short of original expectations, and had left me with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. And I had promised myself that if ever a second chance were to come my way I would do all in my power to succeed. Fortunately for me this second chance did present itself when my application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in a French lycée was accepted.
On reflection, however, perhaps the word ‘adventure’ is not entirely appropriate. I know it has connotations of courage and audacity but I can sincerely say, without false modesty, that I don’t think the word really applies in my case. For I’ve always considered that courage should have a sustained, consistent form and involve fighting against a permanent temptation to yield to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term challenges of climbing a snow-topped mountain or hacking your way through a steaming jungle. And since my freely-consented choice to go and live in a foreign country was the result of a desire so overwhelmingly invasive that I couldn’t resist, real courage for me would have meant making the constant effort to endure what I considered to be barely tolerable – the conventional, routine English schoolteacher’s life I was leading, and which I would probably continue leading in one way or another for the rest of my working days.
(To be continued)