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Cafe du Medoc, Avenue Camille Pelatan. Rochefort-Sur-Mer, oil on canvas

A revised version of an earlier blog

This story has to begin at school,. That is to say, Southend High School for Boys. A custom-built, well-designed school on a large patch of land, in an anonymous style, neither ancient nor modern. it was run on the premise that it was a ‘Grammar School’ (which of course it wasn’t), and Cyril Sheldrake, the senior English master, who looked remarkably like the official portrait of Shakespeare (a resemblance that he did not reject) said that it should have just concentrated on being a good school without flummery. The designation”Grammar School’ had been purloined by the 1944 Eduation Act for the top ‘academic’ layer of schools The residue were taught in schools called Secondary Modern: there was supposed to be a third tier of ‘Secondary Technical’ schools, but they hardly got off the gtound. However, there it was: our masters wore black gowns, and full University fig on public occasions, leaving the Wood-work teacher in a manual brown jacket, and the Gymn-Master in nothing specific to cover his muscles.The school, with about 600 boys was predominately staffed by men; broadly speaking half left over from the 14/18 war, and half from men who had seen action in ’39/45.

There were three women-teachers as I remember it, Miss Bamford, Miss Gare and Mrs Alexander leading to  a song which started “Some talk of Alexander, and some of Mother Gare`’… but I don’t know how it went on. All I remember of Miss Bamford (who taught Geography) was that she once said to me “The trouble with you, Page, is that you think you know too much.’ I comsidered questioning the logic of this statement, ie ok in New Guinea Pidgin, but not in English) but didn’t. Mrs Alexander must have taught German: I only knew her as an RE teacher constantly talking about the Oberammergau passion play. Doris Gare, however, taught French in the lower classes, and was young enough that an occasional boy would pretend to have dropped a pen from his desk to look up her skirt while retieving it -vor trying to, anyhow. It must have been Doris who got the school involved in a French exchange scheme. 

My parents accepted that an exchange would be a good thing, so we signed up for it. I had of course experience of being put on a train to destination unknown, but that was in 1940, with the rest of Earls Hall Infants, carrying a large teddy-bear, and only for foreign parts as far away as Whaley Bridge in Lancashire, tho’ that felt foreign enough at five years old. This time foreign parts meant France. I don’t recall being apprehensive, or worrying about not being understood. In fact the effect of the experience was that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know French. I’m not saying my French is good, you understand – just that it is somehow ingrained, I was met at the Gare du Nord, by Monsieur Nash, a concierge who managed a warehouse in the Quatorzieme Arrondisment: I suppose he must have waved a placard with my name on it. I stayed the night at his place, and the next day he put me on the train to Rochefort-Sur-Mer. 

Oddly M. Nash was in fact English , but had lived in Paris since his youth. I don’t know how he managed through the German Occupation but in his blue cotton jacket  trousers and beret he looked like any other French working man. He had pretty well forgotten English: we spoke French and sign-language). I asked him what English words he remembered and he replied,with great relish. “PLUM-PUDDING?,”

When I arrived at Rochefort I would have been met at the station by Madame Masson and her son Paul, my exchange partner. A short walk up the road, and left into the Avenue Camille Pelaton took you to the Cafe du Medoc, a two storey building, red-tile-roofed, with small plane trees at intervals along the pavement. M. Masson would have been in the Cafe, in his role as Patron: it was open all week, early morning to late evening. and he hardly ever left it. I was given my own room upstairs in the house, so there I was in France.

Someone had matched our two families: I wonder who, and how they did it; I suppose you could say that we were at equivalent levels in society – and both walking distance from the Railway Station! However, my father travelled up to the City, every day, to work as a salaried Insurance Clerk whereas M. Masson rarely travelled anywhere, and ran his own business. Both families were aspirational for their son: perhaps that was the link.

At our sub-Arts & Crafts Revival semi detatched house in Prittlewell, we had bed-rooms, living-room, kitchen and bathroom, and a garden The Cafe ground-floor had a kitchen behind, with the public area also serving as a living-room. There was no bathroom, and the loo was outside the side entrance to the cafe, consisting of the usual continental hole in the ground with two foot positions, and a bar on the door to hold onto when squatting. It could be hard on the stomach muscles if someone outside was trying to pull the door open to take a pee, which, as this was a cafe, was often. The loo paper was quartered sheets from l’Equipe (the French cycle-racing paper) on a wire Baths were taken at the local Bath-house where you could luxuriate in an individual bath cubicle with unlimited, very hot, bright yellow water from the river Charente. silt and all. Otherwise washing was in the sink downstairs, or jug and bowl upstaires.

Cycle racing was important to the Cafe; as I was there in the summer holiday, it was the height of the Tour de France. M. Masson would stand on a stool each day to write the day’s final placings, with a stick dipped in white distember, on the large mirror behind the bar – cleaned off at the end of each dayready for the next set of results. He did leave the bar just twice that I can remember, and I was taken along to see the Tour pass – hours of commercial vehicles before and after, with a very brief flash of contenders. Those were the glory days of riders like Fausto Coppi. One rider who appealed to me was Robic, a fiery little man, who, when someone stepped in front of him, causing him to fall, picked up his bike and bashed the offender with it, before mounting and pedalling on. Paul and I had bicycles and rode around the town and country: later I often rode out of Rochefort by myself, sketching in the countryside. Something different was that the bikes, unlike English ones, had a police registration number. However, cycling was elevated by my experience in France: I rode (my longest expedition) from Southend to Coniston (where I learned that I had got into Oxford) and back again, and then regularly rode to work from Isllington to Walthamstow or Plaistow.

Life in France seemed easy-going, but depressed. The country, after all, had lost two major warson its own territory, whereas the Brits, who had not been invaded, could pretend that they had won. I was not particularly aware of politics at the time, except that my second exchange visit to France coincided with the Korean war. As the Americans pushed up the west coast, and were then pushed back again by the Chinese I discovered from the French Papers that National Service was to be extended from one and a half to two years: not a prospect I liked the look of. My brief time in the Sea-Scouts was enough of militarism. I can’t remember whether I dropped out or was expelled for not knowing my knots.

Madame Masson was a sweet-natured woman, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, ech time asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer.

Fort Boyard from L’Isle d’Aix, oil on board

Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as a not-quite ancient monument. On the coast one day we prized oysters off the rocks. Then we went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madame had brought a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters and we ordered a bottle of local white wine, drunk slightly wam in the sunlight: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a dingy we were given access to, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly; nobody seemed to notice, or think that was odd.

Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would probably have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.

The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”

Paul was smaller than me, with a fine voice. He loved singing. Some of the time, during the holidays, he had to do written exercises for some coaching-by-mail organisation, apparently common in France at the time. In between times, when we weren’t doing anything else, we played ping-pong on a table in the yard, and chess. He was a bit highly strung and kicked me if I took his queen; being bigger, I bullied him (sorry. Paul). At any rate it didn’t become a long-term friendship, and I don’t know what happened to him thereafter.

haystacks, Charente Maritime. pastel on paper

However, I realised, sometime then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece: I am a European by education and conviction, both townsman and countryman, and a human being on this (for the time being) unique planet.

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