The Two Mrs Cs

This is an essential read for what follows.

In 1975, people still wore flared trousers and platform shoes (as I seem to remember), at least that is what pop groups on telly used to wear – Arrow, the Rubettes, the Bay City Rollers, and possibly Sweet, who were actually more tight leather and spandex than flairs, and by 1975, were getting past their best, despite their raunchy single « Fox on the Run » which got to number two in the charts.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, there were far better musical happenings. Led Zep released their double album masterpiece, « Physical Graffiti » and Pink Floyd released « Wish you were here ». I eventually bought both at a car boot sale in Bethune in Northern France in 1988, which was the same year as I « procured » a copy of « Sweet’s greatest hits”, from W.R.P.M FM – a small radio station broadcasting from the former mining village of Auchel, near Bethune

I « purloined » the slightly scratchy, but still very playable « Sweet » record from the « musical archives » at WRPM FM. (a miserable collection of about 20 vinyl records – all DJ’s brought their own records with them.) I considered this slice of vital vinyl, a « fitting » reward for the month that I had worked for the station and for the wages that they owed me and refused to pay me on the strength that since I had started my weekly Thursday night rock show, their listening figures had plunged.

The station owner/manager/newsreader/repairman, suggested that I stop doing my shows in English. Mind you, it was he who had originally asked for my ten-til-midnight rock slot to be in English.

“Sounds groovy and professional, like a real radio station” he said, (and not a beat-up old mobile home behind a slag heap in a village that looked and felt like the armpit of the world.)

My English was “trop anglais” (too English), all the station owner/manager/newsreader/repairman actually wanted was French with a heavy English accent, peppered with groovy English words such as “groovy” (a word which I have always hated because it is used by people who are very definitely “ungroovy” to describe things which are equally lacking in any groove)

Back to 1975 …

The most memorable musical event of 75, for me at any rate, was the Dutch success at that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, when the dusky blonde singer of the group « Teach In » told the millions watching, to, « sing a song every hour when you pick a flower. » The catchy Euro ditty was entitled

«Ding a dong ».

I remember the above song for the simple reason; me and Bill McGowan sang it at our end of year school party.(I sang it through a fake mike, while Bill played air guitar) We felt hip. I felt even more hip,(that’s a word worse than groovy) when Bill told me that his brothers listened to Led Zep. We then went round the party telling everyone we listened to Led Zep. No one went « wow », because they had never heard of Led Zep,

In 1975, me, and Bill and the others (our mates – anyone in the class who didn’t live in Beckenham and idolised Suzi Quatro), were in form 4 at St David’s College in West Wickham – a mouldy second division junior school with stinky red soap and Izal Medicated in the boys’ toilets, boiled cabbage for lunch and the occasional rat scratching round the kitchens. (The school is still there.)

The frail, aging, but still very much iron hand that kept us in check, belonged to Mrs Carling. We thought she was very old, even older than our grans. She was old enough to be dead (which she probably is now, but she wasn’t then, which was just as well for us, if not, we would not have had the benefit of her seemingly inexhaustible wisdom ).

Mrs C was thin as a stick. She smelled of rose water and she drove a yellow Datsun coupé with a black vinyl roof – (This was the time when The Sweeney, the word’s greatest ever cop show, was being aired on ITV – and in the Sweeney, all the villains had cars with vinyl roofs, so Mrs C was kind of cool)

Mrs C taught us . . . (amongst other useful stuff)

  • Magna Carta was signed in 1215
  • There are 1760 yards in a mile
  • (though the year after Mrs Wright told us that there were 1765 years in a mile)
  • 13 times 13 makes 169
  • Thank you in French is said « Merci »
  • Manners Maketh Man

I don’t think that Mrs C had changed her lessons much since she had started teaching in the early fifties.(Perhaps the 1850’s). In fact Mrs C didn’t really teach, she dispensed years of wisdom in friendly and informal lectures. Nowadays Mrs C would be a « life coach » – charging a fat fee, for telling people what is quite simply common sense, and the content of her maths and history lessons would fill those almanacs of useless knowledge that have become bestsellers with nostalgic fiftysomethings in recent years

« If you only know one date in history » Mrs C would croak. « It is 1215, when the Barons forced bad king John to sign the Magna Carta, thus guaranteeing freedom for all Englishmen ». We retained this fact. It never actually occurred to us to ask what Magna Carta was. Mrs C had a real downer on King John, she liked his brother Richard though. “Richard Coeur de Lion” she used to roll out is name with pride and a fake French accent. Old Richard was a “real hero” – It was only later in life that I discovered that Richard Coeur de Lion was as about English as the French make of “supermarket” Camembert that bears his name. Richard the Lion Heart only spent six months of his ten-year reign in England. His brother John, who was also French and couldn’t actually speak a word of English, was actually a better King than Richard.

Mrs C couldn’t be bothered with all the new-fangled decimal stuff. She taught good old imperial weights and measures. 12 inches to one foot, three feet to one yard, and, 1760 yards in a mile. (This last statistic has always served as a fantastic « ice breaker ». There are possibly hundreds of my students who know how many yards make a mile without actually knowing what a mile is. However by telling this to my students, I am making sure that Mrs C lives on just a little longer.)

Being a bit of a traditionalist, (and having lived through the War) Mrs C insisted that we learn our tables up to 13. « You should always have a bit extra, you never know when you might need it » Mrs C maintained. The result was hours of rote learning, but thanks to Mrs C, I have reasonably decent mental arithmetic skills, certainly better than those of many French people who only learn their tables up to 10. Perhaps Mrs C was right on the «failings and insufficiencies » of the decimal system. « Look what it did for Napoleon » she snapped one day, warning us against the evil creep of the centimetre into British culture.

As for « Merci », this was not the first French I had ever learned. At the tender age of 7, in form 3 at Newlands House school in Twickenham, (another mouldy, second division establishment masquerading as a “Prep School”), our teacher, Miss Campion, had taught us to say “bonjour”.

Miss Campion was at least thirty years younger than Mrs Carling. Miss Champion had “frizzy” hair and she drove an orange mini. Apart from “Bonjour”, she also taught us “Au revoir”. Miss Campion was just a little “butch” – she bore more than a passing resemblance to Joe Bugner. She taught the boys in the class how to tie their ties and during Thursday afternoon games lessons, she took the boys to play football, whilst the girls were left on the sidelines with skipping ropes. Miss Campion did have a cruel streak. One day, she tied my “boisterous” friend Anthony to his chair, with one of the aforementioned skipping ropes. She never hit the kids, the head of school had that privilege. We only ever saw Miss C’s clothing on a Friday afternoon, when around three o’clock, she would finally remove the, swirly, psychadellic-patterned, yellow, bri-nylon overall that she wore all week, and we would sit on the floor round her desk and she would read us  “golliwog” stories. Teaching from another age.

I liked Miss C, but I was glad that I left Newlands House, because the year after I would have had has Miss Roberts – a poker-faced spinster who had the charm and teaching methods of a concentration camp guard. Miss R was not averse to making kids stand outside in the rain, or run round in the snow when they had been “naughty”

Back to Mrs Carling

After « Merci », Mrs Carling taught us the word « baguette » which she pronounced; “bag –oo-wet” in her clipped Joyce Grenfell tones. Mrs C said that the French ate bagoowet all day and explained that the Bagoowet  was the shape it was, because Napoleon had designed it that way, so his soldiers could stuff it down their trousers whilst on the march. Mrs C showed us pictures of France, where everyone wore berets and rode on bicycles along tree-lined roads that seemed to lead to nowhere. It looked very pleasant but also very backwards.

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