Play it again George


‘Me te se nous vous …. le la les ….. lui leur … y en!’

I found myself chanting along with Hugh Schofield yesterday morning during From Our Own Correspondent.  His dispatch was a nostalgic item in memory of a French teacher known as Mush (short for Monsieur).  Mush was a strict grammarian, in contrast to the wishy washy teachers of today who discuss French lifestyle with our children instead of teaching them French.  We had a strict grammarian too.

His form never thought of me te se & co as a football team, although 5, 3, 2, 1 was our preferred system too.  We just had them drummed into us and drummed them back out every morning, banging time on the desk.

Our word-ordermeister was an irascible former soldier named Bradshaw with a severe no1 haircut and a tendency to go puce in the face, as if blowing up a lilo, when provoked by grammatical error.

‘Tomp! Tomp! Tomp!’  Bertie B would scream, if one of us put place before manner or time in a German sentence.  And his roar of ‘Imbécile!’ would rattle the windows when we made the classic reading mistake of mispronouncing French words like impossible or indescriptible or even imbécile as if they were English. There may have been some in the class who enjoyed his outbursts so much, they made the mistakes on purpose.

But the inspirer who got me interested in French long before I was introduced to the complications of word order was one of those dashing young masters whose cameo appearances brought vis and vim to the hidebound prep school scene in the days before teachers had to have qualifications.

With his shiny back hair swept back in a springy quiff, George Bird cut a romantic figure, and when he sped up the drive with the voluptuous under-matron Nurse Fleming in her topless MG Midget, our admiration knew no bounds. Where they were going, and what for, kept us awake long after lights out. And them too, perhaps.

In the best tradition of the junior master, Mr Bird was an all-round sporting hero.  He had a full-sized cricket bat (short handle) which he allowed me to use, thereby improving my chances of making contact with the ball, or so I calculated.  He was also a forward-thinking teacher of French who brought audio into the classroom, replacing blackboard and duster with the cutting-edge glamour of Linguaphone.

As I remember the structure of the lesson, we would listen to a story of the Delage family, narrated slowly and with exaggerated emphasis by a classical actor from the Comédie Française; then Mr Bird would rewind the tape and play it again for us to join in.  Many of the details of the Delage family’s not terribly exciting activities have stayed with me down the years.  In Fontainebleau forest they ate poulet roti froid off a tree stump – or was it a rock? – plat comme une table.  In another episode ‘Monsieur et Madame Delage mènent les enfants à la Tour Eiffel. Cette tour a trois cents mètres de haut.’

I never had trouble with the height or pronunciation of Eiffel’s erection after that, unlike many British visitors who ask directions to the ‘eyeful’ and meet glassy-eyed incomprehension.  The way our reader emphasised three syllables in mènent les and cette tour made me ever respectful of the silent syllable.

But the main thing I took away from those linguaphone sessions was the fun of imitating every rise and fall and rolled r of the Frenchman’s absurd diction.  Any compliment I have since collected for my own French, as well as most of the fun I have had from the beautiful country and its language, I owe to Mr Bird.  Perhaps there is something to be said for the wishy washy approach after all.

Mush taught Hugh to write ‘les pinsons gazouillaient dans les haies‘.  Most impressive.  We were advised to say ‘je me débrouille’ which also works well and may have more practical applications. Mush has been gone ‘these many years’ but George Bird can’t have been ten years older than us, so I trust he is going strong.  I bet he still has a fine head of hair.

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