Je remercie, tu remercies, elle remercie …

November 23, 2009

A post I’ve wanted to make for some time is how I came to be doing this at all.

I mean, I know I wrote this, right back at the beginning, which explains the why of it – but the how of it is down to the people who put me in a position even to think that someone like me could sustain a non-native bilingual existence with my first-born for a matter of weeks, let alone the 21 months we have so far clocked up between us, one day at a time (as we say in the After School Club.) 

I have been lucky and had a lot of talented teachers in all disciplines in my life, most of which was (at least, prior to the After School Club watershed) spent in full-time education. But a few of them have given me confidence that I was able to take outside the classroom, confidence which saw me through the lessons of the many rubbish teachers I have also had, and, in a way – though the faults are all my own – helped create the Francophone monster that is Papa et Piaf. 

Here they are. 

Martin was probably the first, though he came on the scene at about the same time as Nadia (see below). The first teacher to make me realise that French was a language that people actually used, rather than a verbal trigonometry. He smoked immensely and, again, his failing made him seem more human. He was a caustic, cynical man in some ways and regularly referred to hapless students as “cretins”, which was one of the many things I liked about him – he didn’t pretend to like everyone just because they were children. This meant that, if ever he did show signs of liking you, you could actually believe it might be true. 

And he was, in other ways, tremendously kind. I remember going to see him once after the lesson because I thought I didn’t understand the perfect tense (yes, I really was that much of a loser.) I ended up actually crying (a loser AND a wimp – hands off, ladies, I’m practically married!) When he saw how distressed I was, Martin spent half his break talking me through it (remember, this man was probably a forty-a-day smoker who self-medicated on Gauloises and must have lived for his breaks. )

Several years later, he also enlivened A-level by actually telling us things we might want to know, and hinting at the dirty bits in Camus. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing French past GCSE.

Nadia arrived at our school when I was in what was then called the third year. She came to teach us Russian, taking over from a man who had learnt his Russian spying on Soviet air traffic. She was a real Russian; she was very short; she claimed to have a brown belt in karate; she was clearly mad. Nadia, again, made a language seem much more than lists of declensions (of which Russian has many). With her, we could imagine people actually living, loving, arguing, even doing karate in this then very rare language (perestroika didn’t really get underway until my GCSE year.) When I sat A level, Nadia coached me. When I applied to Oxford, Nadia gave me extra lessons, free of charge, which is basically what got me in. When I wanted to go to Russia, Nadia helped me sort it out, and gave me a few pointers on how to get extra hard currency through customs. When I thought that Chekhov was tosh, Nadia reassured me that I was not alone. And she also said one of the nicest things a teacher had ever said to me. We were flying to Moscow together. Somehow, we were talking about my family, particularly my mum. “Well, she’s done a good job,” said Nadia. It took me a second to realise what she meant and, when I did, I must have been pink with pride. A teacher thinking that I was not only a good student, but a good person? There was hope for me yet.

Mary was the one-woman welcoming committee when I arrived at Oxford. She had given me my place (when my first choice college had, foolishly, rejected me); she had patiently and politely answered some nonsense letter I had written to her before starting (about something nothing to do with her, like bedding or grants – I had so little idea about how Oxford worked that I just wrote to the only person whose address I had on paper, and it was hers, on my offer letter); and she welcomed me, along with my fellow first-year starters, into her North Oxford sitting room in October long, long ago. 

I was not, at that point, studying French. I was at college to do single honours Russian (the English faculty had decided it could struggle by without me.) I was amazed that I was at Oxford, and was liberated by having no idea what to expect. 

The intake that year seemed beyond good. A half-Russian man; a half-Polish woman; a frighteningly gifted man who had taught himself Hungarian for a laugh; and me. And this woman, Mary, was posher than anyone I knew – she had a ‘cello, for heaven’s sake! I almost gave up, there and then.

But Mary did not give up on me. Always quick with praise and measured with criticism; always acting as if my admission had been a considered choice and not a slip of the pen on some long, closely-printed list of names; always taking her students seriously, even when we spoke nonsense. After two terms, I had even started to believe her. 

Colin took me on when I decided that, though I still wanted to study Russian, the particular joys reserved for single honours students – extra linguistics, the Lay of Prince Igor and the Memoirs of Prince Avakkum, these latter two to be read in Old Church Slavonic – were not for me. He found a place for me in his already crowded French group.

As I made the group an odd number, he also agreed to see me individually for tutorials. As I began to develop interests, and as they began to align themselves with his, he would occasionally let me set my own essay title. He even gave me a 10-year-old bottle of home-made white wine, which turned out to be the best sherry I had ever tasted. This, I decided, was what Oxford was about. 

So much so that, after a couple of terms, in the last tutorial before the vacation (it was a hollow joke to call them “holidays”) I diffidently mentioned that I had been thinking of a future in academia. 


If, at that stage, he had turned around and started an awful, mocking impersonation of a deranged simpleton, it would not have surprised me. Of course I had been fooling myself. I was, perhaps not hopeless, but very much an also-ran, and clearly a pretentious one at that.

Instead, he said, quite quietly, “Yes, well. I was thinking of giving you a scholarship, but you don’t work hard enough.”

In a flash, several truths became apparent to me. I was not an idiot; I was not delusional; and, most important of all, the age-old myth fell apart. At school, I had been effortlessly successful. Then I had come to Oxford and had been effortlessly mediocre. I had assumed that my dear old mum was right, that the bar ha been raised and I could no longer clear it. Instead, it turned out, no-one here was effortlessly anything. The people who succeeded did so because they were very bright, but because they also worked exceptionally hard. I started taking their lead. The following term, I worked harder than ever before or since (as well as acting, rowing, and writing at a “jolly good sport” sort of level) and got my mini-scholarship (or “exhibition” as they call it). I went on to narrowly miss a First and come out of that with enough confidence intact to go on to do research at Edinburgh. Without Colin’s quiet honesty, I’d have ended up pretending to want to be a school-teacher and wondering why I hated my life (I did that anyway, years later – but at least I had a go at what I wanted to be.) 

Ian was the last one. Believed by his Edinburgh undergraduates to have it in for English loafers, he nevertheless took on an Oxford graduate, to all appearances a dilettante (it took me about a term to tell him I was working twenty hours a week and that that was why I was a bit behind on the reading) who came armed only with an undergraduate dissertation on Daniel Pennac, an author almost no one had then heard of, apparently word-processed by a five-year-old, and of which Oxford’s examiners could not decide whether it was a work of genius or the ravings of an imbecile. 

Ian gave me the benefit of the doubt and, when he realised I was broke, did all he could to enable me to make some sort of a go of my doctorate. He sent me to France twice; he found me teaching hours (my poor undergraduates, I am so sorry you were lumbered with me); he got me published; and he let me stay round his house once so I could return from Nice to do a conference paper. He also took me lunchtime drinking at the Southsider. Ian made me believe that, not only could I become an academic, but that I could live as an academic, perhaps for my whole life. The question of what the hell I was going to do with this bizarre commodity called life was finally, and to my immense relief, solved

Of course, I went on to piss all that up the proverbial wall, but that was no fault of his. And I did come out of it speaking really rather good French …

So, if any of the five of you end up reading this, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.


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