An Education Lynn Barber Atlas (2009) Rating: ????? Tags:
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[Barber’s] a suburban girl who’s frightened that she’s going to get cut out of everythinggood that happens in the city. That, to me, is a big story in popular culture. It’s the storyof pretty much every rock ‘n’ roll band. (Nick Hornby, author of the screenplay adaptation ofAn Education )
The inspiration for the award-winning motion picture: "Candid, unsentimental and extremelyfunny. I read it in one glorious go, laughing and crying throughout."—Zoë Heller When LynnBarber was sixteen, a stranger in a maroon sports car pulled up beside her as she was on herway home from school and offered her a ride. It was the beginning of a long journey frominnocence to precocious experience—an affair with an older man that would change her life.Barber’s seducer left her with a taste for luxury hotels and posh restaurants and trips
abroad, expensive habits that she managed to support in later life as a successful Londonjournalist whose barbed interviews at once terrorized and fascinated her smart-set subjects.
A poignant, shockingly candid account of the stages in a literary life—from promiscuity at
to a complex marriage that endured—_An Education_ is a classicOxford to a stint at Penthouse
of English memoir.
Lynn Barber studied English at Oxford University. She began her career in journalism atPenthouse, and has since worked for a number of major British newspapers and for Vanity Fair.
She has won five British Press Awards and currently writes for the Observer. She has published
two volumes of her celebrated interviews, Mostly Men and Demon Barber.
By the same author
How to Improve Your Man in Bed
The Single Woman's Sex Book
The Heyday of Natural History
Mostly Men (collected interviews)
Demon Barber (more interviews)
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First published 2009
Copyright ? Lynn Barber, 2009
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Sonnets and Verses (? The Estate of Hilaire Belloc 1923)‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc from
is reproduced by permission of PFD (www.pfd.co.uk) on behalf of The Estate of Hilaire Belloc.
An extract from ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield is reproduced by permission of The Society ofAuthors and the literary representative of the Estate of John Masefield.
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that itshall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulatedwithout the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in whichit is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on thesubsequent purchaser
For Rosie and Theo
In 2002, I was chatting with a friend, a fellow journalist, when he happened to mention PeterRachman, a notorious evil landlord in Fifties London. He started to explain who Rachman was,but I interrupted, ‘Oh yes, I knew him slightly, when I was at school.’ My friend wasincredulous: ‘You knew Rachman? When you were at school?’ So then I explained that, while I
was still at school, I had this much older boyfriend, Simon, who was in the property game andthat we sometimes went round to see Peter Rachman (though we called him Perec, his originalPolish name) at his various nightclubs. Telling it baldly, like that, I could see it soundedbarely credible, and when my friend kept asking questions – sceptical questions, as a goodjournalist should – I gave up the attempt to explain and changed the subject.
But afterwards I found myself thinking long and hard about Simon for almost the first time inforty years. I hadn't exactly repressed the memory, but I had effectively banished it to the
very back of the cupboard. It was something I didn't like thinking about, didn't like talkingabout, saw no point in remembering. It was as if, say, I'd had a nasty car accident as ateenager which entailed many horrible operations but luckily I had made a full recovery so whygo back over the gory details? There was no pleasure in remembering Simon so I preferred notto.
But then the Rachman conversation got me thinking, ‘Well yes it was very odd that I knew
Rachman when I was only sixteen.’ But the more I thought about it, the more everything aboutmy life as a teenager seemed odd. Why was I, a conventional Twickenham schoolgirl, runninground London nightclubs with a conman? Why did my parents let me? Almost to explain it tomyself, I wrote down everything I could remember and found that, once I tapped this untouchedspring of memory, there was no stopping it. So then – being a great believer in Dr Johnson'sadage that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money – I shaped it into a short
Granta magazine. He had asked mememoir and sent it off to my friend Ian Jack, who was editing
to write an article on my love of birdwatching so ‘An Education’ must have come as asurprise, but anyway he published it in the spring of 2003. You can find a slightly revisedversion of it here, in chapter two.
piece appeared, my agent contacted me to say she'd had an approach from aSoon after the Granta
film producer called Amanda Posey who wanted to meet me to discuss making a film of ‘AnEducation’. It was the worst possible timing – my husband was in the Middlesex hospitalhaving a bone marrow transplant and I was virtually living in the hospital. But Amanda Poseysaid she would come to a nearby coffee bar and meet me any time I could get away. So, ratherbegrudgingly, I left the Middlesex for half an hour to meet her and her partner, Finola Dwyer.Amanda struck me as a very bright young woman but so unlike my notion of a film producer (I wasthinking Harvey Weinstein) that I almost suspected she might be a fantasist. She asked if Iwanted to write the filmscript myself and seemed delighted when I said no – she said shealready had a screenwriter in mind. The whole meeting seemed completely unreal but theneverything at that time seemed unreal, so I said ‘Yes, by all means make the film,’ and wentback to the hospital and forgot about her.
Months later I received a contract the size of a phone directory and realised that Amanda Poseywas serious. I also learned that the scriptwriter she had in mind was her boyfriend – nowhusband – Nick Hornby. This made the whole idea more plausible, especially when I met Nick. Ifound it odd (still find it odd) that this preeminently ‘boy’ writer should so completelyunderstand what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who was on the one hand verybright but on the other very ignorant about the world but, miraculously, he did. He even seemedto understand my parents, which is more than I could ever say myself.
Luckily I had the nous to put a clause in the contract saying I was allowed to see and commenton (but not alter) any script Nick Hornby wrote. This was an education in itself – as theyears and drafts went on (I think there were eight in all) I learned a great deal about the artof screenwriting from watching Nick's scripts evolve. The first draft stuck very closely to mystory which cruelly exposed the fact that it had no proper ending – it reached a dramaticclimax and then dwindled away. Over the next few drafts he battled to create a good ending andeventually did; he also fleshed out characters who had been no more than names before andcreated whole scenes that were not in my story at all. The girl who used to be me became acellist in the school orchestra, and bought a Burne-Jones at auction, and went to Walthamstowdog track, none of which I did, while her parents slowly mutated from infuriating dinosaursinto perfectly reasonable human beings. By draft eight I found myself actually weeping withsympathy for my father – a weird and possibly even therapeutic moment in my life. The only badthing Nick did was to change Simon's name to David, which was my husband's name. I have changedit back to Simon (though that was not his real name either) in this book.
Years passed, draft screenplays came and went, possible backers came and went. I would havegiven up by year two, but Nick and Amanda and their partner Finola Dwyer persisted andeventually, last year, the film went into production. Amanda invited me to watch some of thefilming, and then the first screening of the rough cut. I loved it and started talking proudlyabout ‘my’ film. But I was completely thrown when people kept asking me ‘How does it feel tosee your sixteen-year-old self on screen?’ Is there any polite answer to that? I mean, howdaft would you have to be to believe that an actress, albeit an exceptionally good one (CareyMulligan) was your sixteen-year-old self? But it set me thinking about memory, which has neverbeen my strong point, and trying to remember as much as I could before it vanishes for ever.
I am of an age (sixty-five) where most people start worrying about Alzheimer's and panicking ifthey forget a name. But I won't even notice when I get Alzheimer's because I've had such aflaky memory all my life. I can do short-term memorising. I can bone up for an exam or,nowadays, an interview by reading up the subject the day before and retaining it for precisely24 hours but then – boof! – it's gone. That's why it's terribly embarrassing bumping intosomeone I've interviewed – they expect me to remember all this stuff about their lives, but of
course I had to erase it to make room for the next interviewee. Nowadays I can't even always
remember whether I've interviewed someone. Or, come to that, slept with someone. I am always abit embarrassed meeting men who say they were my contemporaries at Oxford. Did we ever hit thesack, I wonder?
There are whole subjects I used to know that I have since forgotten. I have a certificate thatsays I can do shorthand at 100 wpm – how did I acquire that? Did I bribe the examiner? I got
, I can't translate a line of Horace now. In mytop marks in A-level Latin – eheu fugaces
brief, improbable career as a sex expert, I wrote a manual called ‘How to Improve Your Man inBed’ that was accepted at the time as an authoritative guide. How did I have the chutzpah todo it? I also spent five years researching and writing a book, ,The Heyday of Natural History
which involved reading all the popular natural history books of the Victorian era. Gone, allgone. I seem to have an auto-erase button in my brain that says that once I have ‘done’ asubject, I no longer need retain it. This is fine for my job, journalism, but not so good forreal life. It hurts my friends' feelings that I don't remember conversations we had just weeksago. ‘But I you, Lynn!’ is a frequent cry. ‘I know, I know,’ I say quickly, ‘but ittold
was so interesting I wanted you to tell me again.’
I have certain strategies for remembering. I have kept a daily diary ever since I was thirty(and patchily before that) so I can always look things up. Last year my elder daughter,pregnant for the first time, asked how long I was in labour before she was born. I had no idea,but found my 1975 diary, looked up 3 May and found – wow! – only two hours. If I'd told heronly two hours, she wouldn't have believed me, but then I wouldn't have believed me either. Butmy biggest mainstay for most of my life was David, my husband, who remembered everything. Mostusefully, he remembered people's names and when we'd met before and what we talked about, so hecould often give me discreet prompts in social situations. But even he was shocked once at adinner party when someone was talking about China and I said ‘Oh, I'd love to go to China!’And he said, ‘But you did, Lynn. In 1985. You hated it.’ And everybody stared.
This is all by way of warning that you are in the hands of a deeply unreliable memoirist whosememory is not to be trusted. Where possible, I have checked facts either against my diaries orarticles, but I'm never exactly a slave to facts at the best of times. But does it matter? Whoowns memories after all? I once wrote an account of my Fifties childhood for the Independent on
and my Aunt Ruth (Dad's sister) violently objected to my saying that I ate nothing butSunday
scrambled eggs on toast for a whole year. She said it was slanderous rubbish and a terribleslur on my mother. But how would Aunt Ruth know? We only saw her once a year at Christmas andpresumably then I was eating turkey. My mother, typically, says she has no idea what I ate. Sheis ninety-two now, and remembers what she wants to remember, and forgets the rest. That seemsfine by me.
I know memoirs are supposed to begin with ancestors but alas, I don't have any, because I comefrom the lower, unremembered, orders on both sides. There is no Barber ancestral seat, noreven, so far as I know, any Barber ancestral village. The only remotely distinguished ancestorI ever heard of was a great-great-uncle on my mother's side who was stationmaster at Swaffhamin Norfolk. Of course being a stationmaster was quite a big deal in Victorian times, and Iremember once seeing a sepia photo of him in his stationmaster's uniform which was indeed verygrand, but I don't think I need tax you (or myself) with any Swaffham stationmaster research.
The other day, driving down the M3, I saw a turn-off to Bagshot and thought, ‘My birthplace!Maybe I should go and see it?’ But by the time I'd debated the pros and cons, I was miles pastthe turn-off so Bagshot, like the stationmaster, remains unknown. I was only born there becausemy mother was staying with her parents in Sunningdale, Berkshire, and Bagshot was the nearestmaternity home. No doubt it is a charming and salubrious place but all I know about it is thatI was born there, on 22 May 1944, and survived.
My mother was staying with her parents because my father was still away ‘fighting the war’ oractually mending tank wirelesses in Catterick. He had such bad eyesight he was never sent on
active service, but spent an uneventful war in England. He met my mother when they were bothstationed in Birmingham, she driving ambulances, he guarding a mental hospital. He tells me she
before her teeth fellwas the most glamorous woman he'd ever seen in his life – and that was
out. All through her girlhood and twenties, she had terrible goofy sticking-out teeth. But then– as apparently often happened because of calcium deficiency during the war – all her teethfell out. It was the best thing that could have happened. With her smart new set of non-goofyNational Health gnashers, she emerged as a real beauty, often compared to the film starRosalind Russell. She had thick black wavy hair, hazel eyes, peachy skin, a huge bust and longlegs. People must have wondered why such a stunner should marry a bespectacled geek like myfather, but the explanation lay in her premarital teeth.
My memories begin after the war when we were living in a rented flat over a shopping parade inAshford, Middlesex. I can remember seeing a caterpillar on the curtains, and a rat nosing roundthe dustbins in the yard. But the main thing I remember is that until I was about three therewas a big pram in the corner of the sitting room and then one day it wasn't there. I asked mymother where it had gone and she said she'd given it away, but there was an awkwardness in theway she said it that made it memorable. I suppose it was the first intimation that I was to bean only child.
Being an only child is clearly the defining feature of my character. It meant that I was verylonely for much of my childhood, and relied entirely on books and my imaginary friend Kay forcompanionship. I didn't have any friends till I was ten or eleven, which was tolerable in termtime but painful in the holidays. Worst of all was the annual seaside holiday – a week at aguest house in Lowestoft with my parents – when I would sit on the beach with my nose in abook, envying the other children who played around me. Envying them but also despising them.How could they be so childish? I sniffed. Why were they laughing just because they were chasinga ball? But apparently this was what was meant by having fun. I longed for it, but alsorecognised that I was not cut out for it. Even if the children on the beach had asked me toplay (they never did) I wouldn't have known what to do.
I was not only an only child but also, I think, an exceptionally isolated one, because myparents didn't seem to have any friends. My father had his bridge club (he was a countychampion), my mother her amateur dramatic society, but if they had friends there, they neverbrought them home. Nor did we have any relatives in London. My mother was an only child so heronly family was her parents. My father did have siblings, two of whom had children, but werarely saw them because they lived in Lancashire. I longed to be part of a big extended family,a ‘tribe’, with lots of cousins – I thought cousins would be ideal, much better thanbrothers or sisters who might encroach on my power. Most of all, I yearned to know, not justother children, but other families, to see how they interacted. But I never did, in fact not
until I was an adult.
My parents were effectively first-generation immigrants to the middle class, having arrived byway of grammar school. My father's family was grindingly poor – his father, a millhand, diedof ‘inanition’ when Dad was four and his mother raised four children on a tiny widow'spension. They lived in Bolton, Lancashire, in the shadow of the textile mills, and Dadremembers the great family treat was going round to his uncle's on Sunday afternoons to eatbowls of mashed potato with gravy left over from the Sunday lunch. Occasionally there was evena bit of meat. He remembers winning a prize at school and going on stage to accept it wearingnew boots his mother had managed to obtain for the occasion – but they were bright orange andeverybody laughed.
My father won a place at Manchester university to read maths but couldn't afford to take it up– instead he joined the civil service and did a law degree at night school when he came backfrom the war. I remember when I was very young, Mum saying, ‘Shush, Dad's doing his Torts.’ Inever knew what they were but I knew they were frightening – as finals approached, the back ofhis neck was covered with flaming boils. He got his law degree and gradually rose through theranks of the Estate Duty office but, although he had a middle-class salary, he somehow remainedworking class. He was formidably intelligent but socially untamed. He still said ‘Side the
pots’ in his broad Lancashire accent, whereupon I would say to Mum ‘Shall I clear thetable?’ and she would sigh and say ‘You know your father told you to.’ We also sighed overhis habit of leaving the house with bits of paper stuck to his face when he cut himselfshaving. My mother was far more civilised but, as I told my father, she had only a beta ormaybe even beta-minus brain.
My mother came from slightly more genteel stock than my father – rural rather than urban, inservice rather than in manufacturing, and with the towering figure of the Swaffhamstationmaster in the background. Her father (an extremely handsome man) had an invalid pensionfrom being gassed in the First World War, and took occasional jobs as a postman and gardener;her mother was a qualified swimming instructor. They lived in a two-up, two-down cottage inSunningdale, which was then a country village, and went to Wentworth golf club at weekends tomake a few pennies finding lost golf balls. My mother, despite her beta brain, won ascholarship to grammar school and then to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Shehoped to become an actress but settled for a diploma that qualified her to teach elocution, ofwhich more later.
My parents had been raised as Methodists but by the time they had me their religion waseducation, education, education. I was reared from the cradle to pass every possible exam, gainevery possible scholarship, and go to university – Cambridge if I was mathematically inclinedlike my father, or Oxford if I proved to be ‘artistic’ like my mother. My father often quotedCharles Kingsley's line ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever’ but he said itsarcastically – he wanted me to be clever, and let who can be good.
My mother taught me to read long before I started school so I was amazed on my first day atAshford Congregationalist Primary to find myself stuck in a class with ninnies who didn't evenknow the alphabet. Naturally this attitude made me unpopular with my classmates and I was soonunpopular with the teachers as well because I refused to eat the school food. The school had arule – as did most schools in those days – that you could not leave the table till you hadeaten all your lunch, so some poor teacher would have to waste her break sitting with me,telling me to eat up. I never would. In the end my mother went to see the headmistress and
somethingarrived at a satisfactory compromise: I could leave most of my lunch provided I ate and most days I could. But there was one day a week when we had gristle stew which I couldn'teat at all. So on that day I went down the road to the cinema where, in the hushed grandeur ofthe Odeon restaurant, I ordered soup with roast potatoes and was fussed over by the waitresses.It was my first valuable lesson in the rewards of intransigence.
That is about all I remember from Ashford; my real memories begin when we moved to Twickenhamwhen I was eight. My parents kept saying they had bought this big old house – they were soexcited they talked about it endlessly. My idea of big old houses was entirely derived frombooks like The Secret Garden so I pictured a rambling pile with attics and battlements andsecret staircases. I worried that I might get lost in the cellars, or that my room in the westwing would be haunted by a headless nun. When I finally saw 52 Clifden Road, Twickenham, Ilaughed incredulously, ‘You said it was big!’ I can now understand that it was big by my
parents' standards, a solid Edwardian three-up, three-down terraced house with a porch and aconservatory and longish garden at the back. (Apparently houses in Clifden Road go for almost amillion now.) But I persisted in believing my parents had lied to me, and grumbled for years,‘You said it was big!’
The house was opposite a girls' school, Twickenham County Grammar, but it only took girls fromage eleven, so I had to go to junior school on the other side of town. It was a mixed school,full of rough boys who lurked round the playground lavatories, and jumped up and looked overthe door if you went in. Consequently I was terrified of ever going to the loo and developedcomplicated regimes of what I could eat at what times. For a year – pace Aunt Ruth – I ate
almost nothing but scrambled eggs on toast. Another year it was Marmite soldiers. Luckily theterm ‘eating disorders’ was unknown then, or my parents might have worried about me – thoughon second thoughts, they wouldn't have worried about me as long as my school marks were OK,which of course they were. I was paired with the one other bright girl, Margaret M, and we took
it in turns to win the class gold star every week – nobody else ever got a look-in.Consequently all the other pupils hated us, and we hated them, but we hated each other more.
The only good thing I remember from those early Twickenham years was the night sweet rationingended. My parents had taken me to the cinema – we went at least once, often twice, a week and
(‘What does it meanI saw some wonderfully ‘unsuitable’ films such as The Barefoot Contessa
he was wounded in the war, Mum? What sort of wound? Why does it mean he can't marry her?’) –but this night I think was a boring one until the lights went up and the manager came onstageand said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have heard on the wireless that sweet rationing has ended.We have a full selection of sweets and chocolates in the lobby.’ Everyone stampeded for thedoors. My father of course didn't. He ‘didn't see the point’ of sweets, but my mother did andwe went and bought packets of toffee and chocolate raisins and ate them till I was sick. Sincethen, I've never cared much for sweets, but it was an historic occasion.
When I was ten, my parents took the huge financial gamble of sending me to the junior school ofLady Eleanor Holles, an independent fee-paying school some miles away in Hampton. The idea wasthat if they paid for me to go to the junior school for a year, I would then win a scholarshipto the main school – which is what indeed happened. At Lady Eleanor Holles, for the firsttime, I was mixing with girls from quite wealthy backgrounds – some of them even had their ownponies. I would listen, ears flapping, to their boastful conversations about Daddy's new Jaguaror Mummy's new refrigerator. The snobbery at LEH was all the more fierce because it wasconducted within such a tiny social range: the Oxshott girls despised the Ewell girls whodespised the Kingston girls; the Jaguar owners despised the Wolseley owners and we all dulygasped when the parents of a rather quiet girl who nobody took any notice of turned up forprize-giving in a Rolls Royce.
I could see that there was no way I could win in the snobbery stakes – we didn't have a car,let alone a paddock – so I didn't bother lying but just told everyone I was a pauper and thecleverest girl in the school, which I probably was. (Apparently Lady Eleanor Holles is a highlyacademic school nowadays but it certainly wasn't then.) And actually it paid off. The pony-owners found it quite amusing to know me – I was a novelty in their world. And they were verygenerous: they would always lend me clothes for parties and hand over any book tokens they weregiven for Christmas on the grounds that they had no conceivable use for them and I did.Consequently I have always found it difficult to hate the rich, as good leftie journalists aremeant to do, because they've always been so nice to me. The LEH girls liked having a pauper intheir midst, and I liked having friends for the first time in my life. It was a great day forme when we moved up to the main school and three girls competed to sit next to me in class.
Probably they just hoped to crib my schoolwork, but I basked in my first taste of popularity.
The only thing wrong with LEH from my point of view was that it was surrounded by miles ofplaying fields and you had to play games. Worst of all you had to play lax – lacrosse – whichrelied on the daft notion that it was possible to run while holding a ball in a sort ofprimitive snowshoe above your head while other girls hit you with their snowshoes and tried totrip you up. Obviously it was dangerous folly even to attempt it. And then we had to takecommunal showers where the dykey games mistress stared longingly at our nascent boobs andbushes. Eventually I got my parents to write a note saying I had weak ankles and should notplay games – which would have been fine except that I then had to go to remedial podiatrysessions and learn to pick up pencils with my toes. Then the podiatrist said I should take upice skating to strengthen my weak ankles and actually got me a free pass to Saturday sessionsat Richmond Ice Rink. God – I'd thought lacrosse was scary, ice skating was terrifying. In
theory there was a quiet place in the middle of the rink where you could practise your figuresbut you had to get to it through this stampeding pack of speed skaters. I once saw someone'sfinger sliced off when he fell over in the pack and a ring of blood went right round the rinkbefore the stewards could get the speed skaters to stop.
The other great curse of these years was my mother's elocution lessons. When we lived atAshford, she had a part-time job at a department store in Windsor teaching shopgirls to speakposh, but when we moved to Twickenham she set up the front room as her ‘studio’ with her
LAMDA certificate on the wall and gave elocution lessons at home. She would have liked to havehad a board saying Elocution Lessons on the front gate, but my father and I both vetoed it –my father on the grounds that it might make us liable for business rates; me on the groundsthat I would slash my wrists from embarrassment.
In those days – the Fifties – there were elocution teachers in every town; in Twickenhamalone, there were at least three, and another half-dozen across the river in Richmond. Theyclaimed to teach drama, ‘projection’, and the art of public speaking, but what they reallytaught was how to talk posh, or a particular version thereof. When my mother said of someone‘She has a bit of an accent’ she meant, not a regional accent, nor even a cockney accent, but
for something,sumpfinkthe most fearful accent of all, which was Common. Common meant saying
or dropping your aitches or pronouncing the letter h as . ‘I had to go to Homer-ton Highhaitch
Street, your honour, to acquire a hat’ was a good test of Common. The aim of elocution lessonswas to eradicate Common and teach shopgirls to talk like ladies, though what they invariablyended up talking like was shopgirls with pretensions. At Windsor, my mother actually taughtshopgirls to say, ‘Would Modom care to try the larger size?’
A trained speaker, my mother always told me, could recite the London telephone directory andmake it interesting. (The corollary of this, I noticed in adulthood, is that many actors saytheir lines as if reciting the London telephone directory, as if the words have no intrinsicmeaning at all.) The aim of elocution was to display a grasp of diction, enunciation,inflection, projection, chiarascuro, cadence, timbre, lightness, colour, vibrato, crescendo,diminuendo, while reciting, say,
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling
Up tails all!
Ducks' tails, drakes' tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight,
Busy in the river!
(‘Ducks’ Ditty', Kenneth Grahame)
There was much talk of labials and plosives and breathing from the diaphragm. My mother wasmost impressive when demonstrating breathing from the diaphragm because she had an enormousbosom, which would rise several inches when she breathed in, and slowly subside while shebreathed out, all the while humming ‘Om’ for far longer than seemed possible and finishingwith ‘Pah!’ She would urge her pupils to place their hands on her diaphragm while sheperformed this feat, much to their consternation.
Each lesson began with breathing – humming Om and shouting Pah – followed by vowel exercises
such as ‘Behold he sold the old rolled gold bowl’, which was where the real war againstCommon was waged. Then there were the tongue twisters – An anemone, my enemy; Unique New York;Red lorry, yellow lorry; Selfish shellfish; The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick, Sixthick thistle sticks, six thick thistles stick; The Leith police dismisseth us, and Three freethrows, which I don't think anyone ever said correctly, even my mother. Then there was thedangerous pheasant plucker who could so easily lead one astray:
I am not the pheasant plucker,
I am the pheasant plucker's mate.
I am only plucking pheasants
'Cos the pheasant plucker's late.
And finally the exercise in consonant definition which had to be shouted while marching roundthe room and swinging one's arms:
Zinty tinty tuppenny bun!
The fox went out to have some fun!
He had some fun!
He banged the drum!
Zinty tinty tuppenny bun!
This was the daily Muzak of my life from the age of eight, when we moved to Twickenham, tofourteen, when my mother stopped working from home and became a schoolteacher. My mother wouldalready have a pupil in her studio when I came back from school, and I could pretty well tellthe time from whether they were at the Om and Pah stage or beholding their old rolled goldbowls. I would let myself in as quietly as possible, ignoring any pupils who were waiting inthe hall, make myself a cup of tea and settle in the breakfast room to do my homework. Butthrough the wall I could always hear the Oms and Pahs and then the ghastly moment when theystarted on their ‘set pieces’, which they had to learn for exams and competitions. How well Iknew them all!
Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in a mad March haze
With a cargo of Tyne coal, road rails, pig lead
Firewood, ironware and cheap tin trays.
(John Masefield, ‘Cargoes’)
Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men.
(William Allingham, ‘The Fairies’)
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees
And the wine that tasted of the tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah?)
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?
Do you remember an Inn?
(Hilaire Belloc, ‘Tarantella’)
Years later, when I read Eng Lit at Oxford, I learned many much better poems by heart –Shakespeare's sonnets, Keats' odes, miles of Yeats – but if you held a gun to my head todayand said ‘Recite a poem’, it would almost certainly be ‘Cargoes’ or ‘Do you remember anInn, Miranda?’ These are still the poems that flash into my mind unbidden – unwanted! – at
odd moments of the day. ‘Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smokestack,’ I mutter,
crashing my trolley along the Waitrose aisles. ‘Is there anybody there, said the Traveller’as I wait for the call centre to answer.
It occurs to me that most of the poems my mother taught would have seemed ‘modern’ at thetime, or modernist, in that they derived more from Browning than Wordsworth. But then, if theywere modern, why were they so obsessed with goblins and elves? Where did that come from? Was
there some elvish revival, perhaps associated with the Celtic revival, in the early decades ofthe twentieth century? And of course as soon as I write elvish, I think, Oh yes, Tolkein, and