When it comes up in conversation that I can speak more than one language, the most common reaction I get is ‘oh I wish I’d carried on learning xxx [insert language here]’, followed by ‘I was rubbish at languages, but I’d love to be able to speak something else’.
That’s such a shame. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my life are as a result of learning a language, or being able to speak to someone else in their own tongue.
Sometimes it was as simple as befriending the local butcher in a small Normandy village, and him offering us vegetables from his own kitchen, because all the other shops had already closed for the evening.
It can be as eye-opening as talking to remote Mozambican villagers in cod-Portuguese about their lives.
As terrifying as ringing the emergency doctor in Germany because my then-girlfriend couldn’t stop being sick. I learned some new vocabulary on that call, I can tell you!
Or being able to persuade a local woman to offer us a room for the night in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, because we had nowhere else to stay.
But this isn’t a story about politics and a chance for me to complain about modern leadership.
A particular sentence stood out for me in the above piece from The Guardian. A No.10 source downplayed the seriousness of the allegations against Chris Pincher because it was
on the level of “somebody’s bum being pinched”
You might look at that phrase and shrug your shoulders, but it sent more than a small shiver through me. Let me explain why…
Best days of your life?
Between the age of 7-11, I went to an all-boys prep school in London. We had very little money as a family, but somehow I managed to convince people that I was intelligent enough to be offered a scholarship, which coupled with a bursary meant the annual fees were negligible.
For most of that time, I was a ‘day boy’, in that I travelled to and from my place of education by train.
It’s a measure of how different things were in the 70s/80s that from the age of 7, every day, I caught a train into London – unaccompanied. It never seemed unsafe. Rather it felt remarkably normal, although I doubt I’d ever expect a child in 2022 to do similar.
By the time I reached my final year at the school (1982/3), we were moving house to a place that no longer had a direct rail link to my school.
The school rather generously offered my parents the option of becoming a ‘boarder’ for a year, waiving the additional fees that this usually entailed.
Thus, I entered a life that is now more commonly associated with Harry Potter (without the magic and Dementors, I hasten to add), or – for older readers – Jennings and Darbyshire.
I lived in a large boarding house on London’s South Circular, where we had a tuck shop, dormitories, a croquet lawn (I kid you not!), and I shared the space with roughly 50 other boys and around 5-6 teachers and a matron.
Rules were in place – daily ‘prep’ time (to do homework), regimented mealtimes and lights out, and mandatory daily shoe cleaning (they were checked!).
We had a TV, but viewing was limited (although I do remember seeing Channel 4’s launch night), and the table football became a focus of remarkable competition.
Many of my fellow boarders spent almost the entire school year here. Some boys’ parents lived abroad (I recall Singapore, Abu Dhabi and New York being three of the overseas residences), while at least two were the offspring of Conservative Government ministers (you’re getting the drift now, I imagine).
So to the real point of this post. The ‘Housemaster’ was a single man in his 50s. I’ll call him Nelly (his nickname – I won’t name him outright) and he was also one of the school’s Geography teachers – I recall learning about the business of tea plantations in his lessons. He was overweight and in the habit of wearing rather ugly cardigans (I can still remember one the colour of Colman’s mustard 40 years on).
One of the peculiarities of the boarding house was that it had two sets of stairs. A grand, wood-panelled flight at one end of the building that was only to be used by teachers and the three prefects, and a really pokey flight of stairs in the centre of the building, that took you from the basement level up to the attic rooms.
This second set of stairs was narrow and you had to squeeze past anyone coming in the opposite direction. By and large, they were only used by us boys, but on occasion we’d bump into teachers, particularly Nelly.
He had a habit of roaming the stairs at times when he knew it would be busy and he also had a problem with – to put it politely – his ‘wandering hands’.
I can’t tell you the number of times I walked past him and I’d feel a sharp pain on the inside of my bare leg (we mainly wore shorts at that age), or my bum.
When I turned to work out what had happened, Nelly would be standing there looking innocent, before rubbing the wall of the stairs and uttering the immortal words: ‘Ooh, look at that rusty nail… rusty nail’.
This happened to me (and I imagine most other boys) at least once a week. Did it progress any further than this? I honestly have no idea. I’ve barely ever talked about it and have long lost contact with anyone I boarded with at the time.
The more I think about it now – four decades on – the more distressed I become at the fact that a school employed a man in a position of responsibility, who clearly ‘liked’ young boys.
I also don’t think Nelly’s behaviour was particularly secret. All the boys knew and I’d be hugely surprised if the other teachers who lived in weren’t in some way aware.
But it was a different time – even if anyone had had the wherewithal and awareness that they should make a complaint, this was the late 70s/early 80s. It would have been laughed off, ignored or possibly even punished.
Pinching is not just pinching
And so, back to that comment I highlighted earlier in the Guardian piece from a ‘No.10 source’, in which Chris Pincher’s behaviour was dismissed as ‘just’ somebody’s bum being pinched.
Do you think it’s a small thing that can be casually dismissed? Possibly if it happens to an adult, it could – at the very outside – be brushed aside. But when it happens to young, innocent pre-teen boys. Hmmm.
I went to a family funeral this week – that of my Great Aunt Jean who was 92, a lovely woman who I spent a fair bit of time with when I was a kid.
I have many fond childhood memories of family gatherings, evenings playing cards (for pennies) and walking the dog with her, but as is often the way, though, I haven’t seen her much at all in the recent past. In fact, I struggled to remember the last time I’d seen both her and her husband, John.
In fact, I probably haven’t seen much of my extended family for a number of years – not a deliberate choice, but just ‘one of those things’.
So the funeral was a wonderful chance to catch up, but also to be reminded of age and ageing. Everyone looked broadly the same, except most of us were all a bit older, greyer – possibly bigger – and slower.