With my little ukelele in my hand


Most people of a certain age have at least heard of George Formby, even if they don’t really know anything else about him. David Skinner likes him a lot. So do I. And so, fairly strangely I’ve always thought, do Italian language students learning English. The freakier the student, the more dreadlocked, the more apparently rebellious, the more they rock out to a fine ukelele solo in the classroom.

Which makes no sense to me, but it works.

I give them a lyric sheet. If I feel like it, and I usually do, I tell them how George got really rich doing these silly songs and how the BBC kept trying to ban him for obscenity, and how they actually did ban When I’m Cleaning Windows. I ask them to find the obscene words, which is a bit of a challenge because Mr Formby wasn’t stupid, however he appeared on stage. There aren’t any. Not a single word you couldn’t happily say in front of your grandmother, Lancashire accent or no.

It wasn’t the words he said that got him banned. Like a lot of older English humour, it was the words he didn’t say that did it. And if you can work out what someone didn’t say then your English is coming on pretty well.

There was a laughably intense article in the Guardian claiming that the BBC had banned the record because of the immorality of singing about a window cleaner peering through hotel windows, noting that a bridegroom was doing fine and wishing he had his job instead of a chamois leather, peering only briefly at the Madonna-like film star staying there after seeing on unexpected – and unwanted – inspection that she was nearer 80 than 18.

I don’t think it was that at all. I think it was the seemingly innocuous line ‘pyjamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied.’

The specific mention of ladies’ nighties makes pyjamas conspicuously male. And here, m’lud, there was unarguable evidence of two – and I hesitate to describe the baseness of this allegation to the court, but yet I must – yes, two men sharing the same bed. At a time when they’d both have been sent to prison even if they were lucky enough not to get electric shock treatment to cure them of gayness. Perhaps Mr Rees-Mogg might revise this policy when he’s Home Secretary, but for now the nonsensical non-issue makes it hard to decipher exactly why the BBC foamed at the mouth over this song in particular if that wasn’t the (ahem) root cause. As it were.

But anyway. I tell the kids to mark up every single word on the lyric sheet they don’t understand – yes I know you’re not supposed to do that, and it’s bollocks – and tell them specifically that if they mark every word on the page then utterly good, because they’ll then know them by the end of the lesson. And also that if they don’t mark a word as unknown and they don’t know it when I ask them then there will be trouble.

We put the words on the board, we see if anyone in the class knows them, if they don’t then I draw them, if they still don’t get it I tell them, then they translate it back into Italian and write it down. It doesn’t sound it but it’s hard work. One class got 127 new words out of five songs once. Which given you need 400 to get by in a new language isn’t bad going from listening to silly songs written a long time ago, 99.5% of which are in everyday use now.

New words learned we read through, first me then them. Then we sing it. Growl it, anyway. Nobody’s yet done the air uke solo, but dreadlock shaking and foot tapping is pretty much standard.

Should I be giving teenagers a thorough grounding in 1930s smut? Not in any text book I ever saw. I did it once for a joke, Formby being the only CD in my bag and being desperate for something to do, and it worked spectacularly. So I kept it. On a two-week course you get to dig around the more obscure parts of the Formby back catalogue, but nothing quite stirs the heart so much as deprived teenagers from some Milanese high-rise bellowing about Mr Wu’s mangling of George’s dicky.

Turned out nice, as Mr Formby said, after all.

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A walk in the woods

Last week my arduous afternoons consisted of sitting reading a book under the shade of a tree, on the mounting block in a riding school yard while ‘my’ kids, the best in the whole school, had their three-hour riding lesson. It was a tough job, but hey, somebody had to do it.

I don’t ride. Last time I did I ended up in Charing Cross Hospital with concussion, whiplash and third-degree burns, which sounds like a busy day at the circus but was a more mundane reaction to riding while drunk in the sun and not turning left when the horse did. But I was made to ride when I was a kid. I didn’t want to. It was that or elocution lessons. You think I’m joking.

Apparently, I was supposed to be grateful I had riding lessons. Most kids didn’t. And if I didn’t like them, if I didn’t like the feel of soaking wet jeans chafing my legs against a borrowed saddle, if I didn’t like bored horses stepping on me, if I didn’t like getting asthma so that eventually I was allowed to stop when an hour on a horse meant a day in bed, then I was just ungrateful

Every single word of this is true. But last week I discovered that while I still don’t really have any great desire to go riding as opposed to looking good on a horse, I also don’t have asthma, or any allergic reaction to horses, dung, straw, hay or stables. Which came as some considerable and pleasant surprise. Maybe I grew out of it. And maybe it was nothing to do with the horses at all, but no matter. It’s gone. What hadn’t gone was my occasional not hearing people properly, assuming I have and over-reacting in a way that makes Clive Dun’s Corporal Jones look like a study in under-acting.

Teaching English, I’d tried showing them You Tube clips of Jones screaming ‘Don’t Panic!” to reassure them about the exams. I’d tried showing them ‘Allo Allo’s Officer Crabtree, to show the importance of proper pronunciation, but that didn’t work at all.

They didn’t get it. But they were laughing?

“Yes, we were laughing because you were laughing.”

Which was a good lesson in itself, although more for me than them.

The biggest Utterly WHAT Did You Say? came at the stables. We were walking back from the jumps at the end of the lesson when I asked one of the older girls, not the one who rode like a centaur, the gymnast, my favourite.

Nor her mate who rode like an Apache, dark and wild. No. This one was probably about Number Three in the ranks of Carl’s Cavalry. I asked how her ride had been but I wasn’t ready for her answer.

Apparently, her arse was afraid.


She said it again.

In France they call them arses, apparently...
                                    In France they call them arses, apparently…

Where the utter blinking flip did she get phrases like that from? Who’d told her this was an appropriate thing to say? What on earth had given her the idea that this was an acceptable response when her English teacher was asking her a question? Hmm? Well? I’ve got all day. It’s your own time your wasting (Trad. Arr. All Teachers Ever Until They Get A Grip And Stop It).

Which possibly predictably produced instant utter bewilderment. Is it not the right word? But it is?

No, it certainly is not.

But – this is, is it not, my arse? She nodded at the huge four-legged black animal walking amiably next to her.

Well, probably obviously to you, dear reader, but not to me walking down a dusty track in the woods surrounded apparently by arses, it wasn’t what she was saying. Or rather it was, but not what she thought she was saying. Because she was French. And the ‘ash’ sound (no it is NOT, it’s aitch! As in hotel! For heaven’s sake!) isn’t one that comes naturally if you don’t have it in your head. And the vowel sound O comes out as A, too. So when the poor bewildered girl told me about her horse being scared of a jump it sounded as if she was saying something completely different.

Next day’s punishment was reciting the words on the board:

I held the horribly hot hideous horse’s hoof in my hand.

They all did it. For up to ten minutes afterwards. Then it was back to normal. And having to remember that what people say is not always what they mean. Especially when they didn’t say what you thought they said. Just like the time I told them:

Oui, j’adore les chevaux aussi. Mais c’est n’estce pas possible pour a manger le tout chose.

It was in Norway. It would have been rude not to. And like a steak, since you ask.

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A certain smile

Trop belle pour toi
The first bus left at 03:30 and after the final show and the singing and the tears and the laughing and the exchanging of the addresses and the hugs and the couple running their hands all over each other outside by the bins – and they were teachers, not kids. Or I would have had to use Stern Teacher Voice™ to say “Stop That Now. Stand Up, The Pair Of You. What’s Your Name? Not You. I Know Your Name…..”

The litany you can remember from your own school days, but in this case I left them to it and walked away un-noticed. Straight to the staffroom, to tell everyone I could find, obviously, or at least the two French women I liked to talk to. But anyway. Alors.

I had a meeting that day, one that might change my life, a discussion with a former BBC script writer about a TV script about Hereward, our almost forgotten resistance fighter, a man good with a sword and an axe, a David Beckham of the jousting field, if Beckham had come from the big house in the village with the stables, where the daughters have their own ponies and Nanny has her own car because we don’t want her living in. I mean, it’s not 1070 or something, is it? That kind of Beckham, where the kid goes off the rails because Daddy keeps bailing him out when he messes up instead of using Stern Teacher Voice™.

Remarkably effective used sparingly, no more than once a week maximum. Like anything else, a shock tactic has to shock and if it’s something you do every day then it isn’t something that’s going to shock anyone, apart maybe from yourself when you realise how useless it’s become. So go light on it. And I did, which means I didn’t even let the couple know I’d seen them. Just the French women, obviousement. Just in case they said ah dewnt know what ees zat chose, at which point I could say look, I’ll show you. Ennee, meenie, miney mo, um, you first. Er, no, um, no, first choice…. Obviousement.

The darker haired of my French friends advised me to get some sleep between the first bus going and the second one at 07:30, so after reading her a story for a bit we went to our separate rooms and did, for a little while. Sleep, you understand. Not er, you know. It wasn’t discussed. About an hour and a half, I think. Sleeping. A little and deeply, but not long.

After the last bus had gone I was left standing in the sunlight, my French friends driving down the A12 back to their lives again and after the last free, weird breakfast that had everyone English wondering ‘why do French people mix up their food like this?’ and French people wondering exactly the same about the English. The answer being that it’s school food and nobody ever eats like this nor will again unless they’re kind of sad man who can remember School Dinners being a concept restaurant.

And after a short walk in the sun down to the river and the peaceful little square-towered village church in the woods, a church straight out of Miss Marple, past the alpacas, past The Big House where Hereward Beckham could easily have lived, although I preferred to think the offspring of the house was more like one of my favourite pupils, the quietly, exceptionally clever girl who will be an international lawyer and make an absolute fortune, or the girl who liked riding and athletics and who reminded me so, so much of an ex who tugs at my heart still, if I’d known her before all her stuff went wrong, when she still had dreams and confidence and a life before her. But nothing I can do about any of that on this sunny morning except be quiet for a little while in the sun, remembering all of these new people who are gone now in the still of this huge school by the river this summer morning.

But nothing I can do about any of that on this sunny morning except be quiet for a little while in the sun, remembering all of these new people who are gone now in the still of this huge school by the river this summer morning.

I said goodbye to the two French directeurs who had become my friends. The other English teachers hadn’t seemed to bond with them that much but I found them good company. We joked and talked about food and language and how the French burned Joan of Arc, which they seemed to have got wrong in their history books as her having been handed over to the English who had the lighter fluid that day, but no matter. One teenage girl, flambe, s’il vous plait anyway.

I packed quickly and got in the car and drove away, thinking about the way someone’s teeth were so white against their tan, and blond curls and the way the red tabs on the back of someone’s trainers stuck in my mind. Thinking about, as Francoise Sagan put it, a certain smile. A tone of voice. A glance. A delicate hand running through hair. There are much worse things to do than summer school.

Bon. Alors. Trop belle pour toi. Now there’s a TV script to write. So let’s get on, because I’ve got Stuff To Do.

Just, oh, you know.

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