School in England
Going to school in England was for us a mixed experience. What you must understand was that it was presented to us as a way “to improve our English”, and we knew we also had to go because we couldn’t stay at Grandma’s all day long doing nothing. The first memories I have are of the infants’ school of Hazelwood Lane where Auntie Olive had once been headmistress (check this page), and where she asked if I could be admitted, probably some time during the month of July, in 1965 or 1966. I remember especially my emotion when being looked after in the playground by a very old and lovely girl of 9 (perhaps) who was called Julie, and I immediately found the name as beautiful as the girl. With her friends she must have thought we were an interesting specimen: little French boys, recently arrived in the school! What struck me too, God knows why, were the sports shoes, plimsolls, which we had to wear for the gym class! I wasn’t happy at Hazelwood, and it was an immense relief when we could walk back home with Auntie Olive, past the Triangle and up Aldermans Hill!
Then came the several times (3? 4?) that we went to Saint Monica’s primary school in Cannon Road. Here too there was first the introduction to the Headmaster (Mr Moffat, as Jane in the comments rightly reminds me) with Auntie Olive, who seemed to be so well known and respected! I was still smaller than she was, then. Mixed feelings there too, especially at first, when we were considered curiosities from an outlandish, fiendlike area of the globe where frogs jumped all over the place and the strange uniformed scoundrels facing us couldn’t distinguish us from them. Each summer, upon arriving at Saint Monica’s, we had to go through the painful experience of loss, when we were once again left to our defenceless resources and forced to learn the language and the codes of a new social zoo. No playground friends any more to feel glad with, no customary games, no smaller ones to feel superior to. We were the small ones. Assembly was a specially impressive moment: the whole school in one silent, obedient mass, looking up at the Head addressing each and all: and then the prayer, and the milk with a chocolate biscuit, goodness, how vivid all this still is!
Classes used to be rather more fun, because we had special treatment. Teachers were of another species than the playground animals: they were considerate, and explained to the wild variety that we had been caged there for a good purpose: we actually were on holiday and still wanted to join classes here in England! Thirty turned heads and sixty eyes were ogling us, but it wasn’t as bad as outside. In fact it was a sort of protected haven, because the worst was still to come: school dinners! There, wilderness ruled anew, and not only that but the food which we had to eat was different! A whole new ordeal… It’s silly, but I have only bad memories of school dinners at Saint Monica’s! Everything seems to be bunched up in that one dinner when I was forced by everyone around me to eat that sticky rice pudding with a flashy red sweetener that everyone poured over it in gallons! My appreciation of British culture then was low. Back home at Grandma’s, food was so great! What had happened to it when I was transplanted at school? The only consolation was Grandma’s little bag with a bar and a fruit, in which I felt the protection of her closed front door and the familiar softness of her thick carpets:
Okay, perhaps everything wasn’t that bad after all, and indeed I think I was mostly describing the first times. There were also good moments when, having made a few friends, or being sheltered by courageous cousins, we became accepted and somewhat forgotten. There were rounders for example: I think this game gave me one of my life’s first great joys. The elation at being part of a team and helping others to win a round, or winning one myself, now that was truly something. It made up for all the rice puddings and red goo I ever ate. I was never very good at batting, but boy I ran, and I was good at catching too, and saved my team more than once in this way. The very name “rounders” is full of the special, dense, pleasure of summer days in England when time utterly disappeared and concentrated bliss filled all my senses. I don’t know whether we stayed in the school grounds to play, or whether we had sports in the park, because the best rounders in my memory took place there. We would just have to go down Cannon Hill. The streets around the school, as the years went by and saw us returning to Saint Monica’s, were increasingly familiar and a welcoming environment that seemed to greet us as we walked up and down them. Conway road, and its little pedestrian passage leading to the end of Cannon road, past the pond with newts inside (once caught them in a jar filled with aquatic plants and brought it back to Mark's place), and the Guides hut (where I believe Mum had long ago Brownie meetings) and along the shaded railings to the school. The school soon entered our comfort zone, people remembered us from past Julies, and teachers took it for granted that we would be in their classes once again. Often we were invited for tea at Auntie Mary’s nearby, and could play with open-minded cousins who liked us.
As I’m writing all this, I realize that today, such periods at school as had been organised for us French cousins would be very complicated. Recently we tried to see if our Joseph might spend some time with his cousins in Bexleyheath, but Hélène told us the school hadn’t agreed on grounds of security. Exchanges between English schools and the continental counterparts have become very difficult. My last experience of school in England was St Ignatius (http://www.st-ignatius.enfield.sch.uk/) in 1975, where Mark was a student.
We took the train at Palmers Green station in the morning, and went down the line to Enfield Chase; I had a train pass for the month, and it was the first time I went into the station after having walked so often up and down the slope which was in fact the bridge over the railway. Most of my stay was at AB’s that year, which made things easier with the organisation. But of course I depended on my cousin for common transport, and once he made us miss the train because he’d forgotten his tie at home!
Mark would probably remember things better than me, because I was the subject of observation at St Iggs! And indeed I was sufficiently steeled from having been such a subject of observation in the past that it didn’t affect me much any longer. I decided I wasn’t going to bother, and indeed watch the comedy of silly school-conscious pupils confronted to an alien like me! Poor horrified Mark saw his carefully built status as an integrated Ignatian swerve dangerously when I fancied I was not going to heed his recommendations, and not wear anything else than my plastic sandals and a clumsily made shoulder-carried satchel! Because of the last item, I was immediately looked upon (so he told me) as a “poof”, and poor Mark had to suffer as a very guilty introducer of such a scandalous foreign species. Nothing less could explain such eccentricity. And my sandals got immediately labelled “Jesus boots”! Everyone else roamed the playground with incredible platform shoes, so I roared with inner laughter. It was easier than before because I was 2 years older than the rest of my group, and had mastered the rules of the subtle game of making my persona more enviable than ridiculous.
So my days at St Ignatius come back to me as quite a tolerable experience. I belonged to a “house” (Campbell House if I recall well), and took part in the sports events – I recall helping my team almost win at badminton. I was in (Mark’s) 2C form, which was fun for me because this was exactly what my future French class in September was going to be called (the numbers go down in France, not up). A lot of the classes were spent for me sitting at the back doing not much when I didn’t want to participate (it was agreed that anyway I wouldn’t get any marks). Probably as a result of this boredom, I once carved a word in red ink on a table (“U-boot”, because I had recently seen a film about German war submarines), and I was told off by fellow-students. But even that didn’t make me lose my cool; I knew I would be gone back to France (my haven!) before coming back in that particular classroom. But I did like the metalwork class, in which the teacher had managed to give me a copper caddie-spoon for me to make, and this in time to finish it and bring it back home as a present for Mum. My diary for July 22nd, 1975 says that I had entrusted Mark with a goodbye letter for the 2C guys, which he gave to M. Crossing, the geography teacher. Wow, I’d completely forgotten that. I wonder what they said. Mark, do you remember? (check below)
I read further about those holidays (something I had certainly never done before!) and realized that you had come back with us, Noël, Paco and myself that year, stayed at Bonnebosq until August 9 when your mum and Chris joined you, and you all stayed until the 19th: I wrote that I had been seeing you for 55 consecutive days! And I think I have never been to the beach so often than then!
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