The Call of France: Book 1 – Barfield School (6)

Michael continues to relate his sobering experiences in his first job as a brewery tied-house supervisor.

BreweryHe 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.

Does Prolonged Expat Living Create Two Different Persons? – 2

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FRENG THOUGHTSThe 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!

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Does Prolonged Expat Living Create Two Different Persons?

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FRENG THOUGHTSI 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)

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Barfield School – Part 5. Tied-House Supervisor

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English SchoolMichael couldn’t say he really hated his headmaster. The person he came nearest to detesting was Deputy Head Cooper, not only because of the loud-mouthed authoritarianism he systematically resorted to as a means of instilling fear in the kids but for the overbearing manner – even open contempt – he was all too inclined to display towards those younger teachers whose pedagogical convictions caused them to seek classroom order on the more enlightened basis of reciprocated respect.

English pubBut what had rankled most was when he’d called Michael ‘a failed businessman’ to his face and in the presence of others. And perhaps it had stung so much because of the element of truth it contained. After graduating three years previously he’d spent two years working in industry. He’d been a ‘tied house’ supervisor for a brewery in Birmingham. The job had been varied and included everything related to the management of outlets licensed to sell alcoholic beverages: interviewing and appointing managers, draught beer cellar management, stock control, order vetting, renovation and refurbishing, promotional work, etc., with the aim of increasing customer frequentation and optimizing the profitability of the 50 pubs and off-licences he’d been placed in charge of. But Michael’s sensibility had been considerably shocked on discovering that this first employment was not only a sobering introduction to the more humdrum aspects of the world of work but provided almost daily contact  with some of the less enviable, occasionally sordid manifestations of human nature. For one thing it was generally recognized in the trade that most, if not all managers were ‘on the fiddle’ – that is to say considerable ruse and ingenuity were used to skim off into their own pockets what should normally have gone to increase the profits of their employer. It was all part of a cat and mouse game between them and the brewery. But since there was not much the latter could do about this illicit reallocation of takings it was more or less tolerated – provided that the manager was reasonable enough not to exceed certain defined limits. And these known limits were established for each outlet by a system of financial control which took the simple but no less viable form of regular, usually monthly stocktaking.

Off-licenceTo this effect the brewery employed a score or so of stock takers whose job it was to go round the company’s tied-house pubs and off-licences ‘taking stock’. This consisted in simply (though, as he was later to find, it was more difficult than he’d first imagined) counting and recording on a dedicated stock sheet the exact quantities in stock at that given moment of everything the pub or off-licence sold (beer both bottled and draught, spirits, cigarettes, crisps, etc.), while taking into account the results of the previous inventory as well as the invoiced goods delivered in between. In this way the stock taker was able to calculate what had really been sold during that given period: if six bottles of brown ale had been counted at the previous inventory, an invoice proved that four dozen bottles had been delivered since, and now there were only ten bottles remaining in stock, this meant that 6 + 48 -10 = 44 bottles had been sold between then and now. And then each evening they would post the completed stock sheets back to the brewery stock office where a dozen or so clerks spent their days costing out the quantities of each item bought and sold in order to work out the profit margin for each. For example, 44 bottles of brown ale bought at a unit price of 80 pence gives a total cost price of 44 x 80p = £35,20 and when sold at a unit price of £1 a total sales amount of £44. A gross profit of £44 – £35,20 = £8,80 has, therefore, been made on the sale of brown ale during the period between the two inventories. The same calculations were applied to all the items sold by the outlet and a  total amount arrived at in each case. These were then all added up to produce a grand total and a gross profit figure (i.e. profits before the deduction of overheads such as wages, heating, etc.) established for that specific outlet. Any discrepancy between the total retail amount sold as determined by the inventory and the actual takings meant that something was going wrong: if the inventory showed a total retail sales figure over a given stock period of £5.000 whereas the actual takings were only £4.000 there was an unexplained deficit of £1.000. How could this be accounted for? In fact there were only two possibilities: either the stock taker or the stock clerk had somewhere made a mistake, or the manager (or sometimes his own bar staff) were ‘on the fiddle’. In most cases it was the latter.


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