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Monday, August 10, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist (13: Healing continued)

Given that I had begun to find out who I was, and had gained immense confidence from a range of activities both in and out of school, my grades at school began to improve. While it may not sound all that good these days (when I hear about young people gaining 10 to 12 ‘O’ Levels), at the end of my fourth year at school and 5th form, I did pass the General Certificate of Education (GCE Ordinary Level) in six subjects – Mathematics, English, French, Latin, Chemistry and Biology. I think I need to say here and now that I did not get outstanding grades. Even taking into account my young age, I don’t believe that the number of subjects or the grades came near to flagging how much my academic abilities would flourish over the years to come. I happen to know two good reasons for this (setting aside my recovering adolescent depression). One was that I was having too much fun in my social life, a point that my father used to make rather frequently with a faintly despairing voice. The second was that I was rather lazy. If I believed anything, it was that I was learning all that I needed to know at school, and had little need to brush up on the day’s lessons at home or to do much academic cramming prior to exams. These issues were to become of importance over the next few years.
Despite the average performance, and even though I was still young, my results allowed me to choose my subjects for Advanced level for the new school year beginning in September 1959 (aged 15). With my sights firmly set on some vague sense of a career as a doctor, I chose Chemistry, Biology and Physics – the basic ‘set’ at the time to gain a place later in a University Medical Course. I am sure I was given advice on what to choose, but Physics may have been partly in deference to, or perhaps in honour of, my father. And Physics nearly became my downfall.
I think at this point there is another issue I would like to explore, and that is my learning style. It seems to me that I have always been a very visual person, tending to as it were ‘get the picture’ very quickly and maybe not need to drill down to shore up the pictures in my head with ‘evidence’ (however you construe that word). In addition, I think I learn through being and doing – that is through an experiential style of learning. If I have been shown how to do it once, and then have been able to practice for myself, the knowledge is firmly entrenched. I want to share the example of learning French.
When I was about 12 an opportunity came out of the blue. My mother had been teaching the Belgian wife of a teacher the rudiments of playing the piano. She lived just down the road from our Hockeredge Gardens semi-detached. They had become firm friends. The teacher taught languages at King Ethelbert Secondary Modern school, and was organizing a tour for students to go to Paris. One of the students had pulled out, the wife mentioned it to my mother, and she obviously discussed it with my father. I have no idea of the cost of such a trip at the time, and how it might have fitted into the finances. I guess in retrospect I was not being an easy son to my father and, apart from the opportunity angle, it may have been a bit of a relief to get me out of the house for a week (and that is probably a grossly unfair way to think, but does fit into my slightly paranoid approach to life in general). To be honest, I believe my father had enjoyed his RAF time in northern France in the 1940s prior to the German invasion, and may have had fond memories that he wanted me to share. The fact that I had not met the teacher or any of the students in question, was dismissed fairly quickly. It was school summer holidays, I did not have other commitments, and I guess I thought it might be fun.
The trip to Paris must have been a bit of a trial. We went by coach to Dover, thence onto one of the Townsend Ferries (operating since 1928, except of course during World War 2). Once across the English Channel, we disembarked at Calais, boarded our coach and several hours later arrived at a French Boarding School in the north of Paris, empty for the holidays. I have only fragmentary memories of the week – dining in the school at long tables sitting on long wooden benches, being shown how to eat the succulent heart of an artichoke for the first time, sleeping in a dormitory, touring historical buildings and sites in a coach, and visiting a gallery (which I imagine must have been The Louvre). I do not remember any of the students or any of relationships I may have made (which is sad). I half remember a trip on the Metro, and my fascination with what could be bought from automatic dispensers at stations (I had not seen such things on the London Underground on the couple of occasions I had travelled). For many years I held onto a rather quaint blue rubber oval, hollowed out and with a slit in the top, which retained its shape. It was just large enough to take French coins and avoid them jangling around making holes in your pocket (very cool). I have a vague memory of a day trip to Versailles, and walking the required miles in rather searing heat (and of course not carrying bottled water, which at that time did not exist). I suspect we may have been up the Eiffel Tower, but this memory has merged with later visits. There are no photographs of the trip as far as I know. I was not to own a camera for several years to come, and I suspect no-one else did either. Did we speak much French (after all a major part of the purpose of the trip)? I suspect we had lessons every day, may well have had to interact a bit with French staff at the school, and may have attempted to use some French when buying souvenirs. What I do know is that I was intrigued by the sounds of French, the differences in the smell of the place (probably a mix of Garlic and Gauloise), and an excitement that seemed to emanate from French people that I had not seen in English people. So began a love affair with France.
I seem to have always had a good ear for picking up accents in others. I guess that may have come from the fact that England is rich in regional accents, and I have always found that fascinating. It could have come from a lovely man called Idris the Bread who delivered bread and happy chat to our back door in a basket every Saturday morning and had a rich Welsh lilt to his words. He teased me until I could memorize and say: ‘Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch’ perfectly with the said lilt, and later helped me to learn the accent for a play in which I had to use a Welsh accent. But I know my fascination with how to pronounce French words began on that first trip. And I tried to maintain the accent through the next year of French lessons at school – much to everyone’s amusement and a chorus of ‘poseur’.
The following year a similar trip to France was planned, with one difference, which was that students would be billeted with a French family. Again, I am not sure how we found out about this next trip, though it must have been from the ongoing relationship with the French teacher and his wife. I would have to guess that I must have behaved myself reasonably well on the first trip, possibly because the teacher had taken some special care to assist or protect me, given I was a stranger.
Whatever, I was to board for about 10 days with Jacques Veyssiere and his family in Port de la Chapelle up near the Sacré Coeur. They’re flat was in a hi-rise classic French 4 storey house, up numerous stairs with brown linoleum, an echo of footsteps, and no lift. 

More to come....

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