In search of French past (2): English Effluence

Elizabeth Browning
Elizabeth Browning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second chapter in which I relate the French influences in my life. In the first chapter, I described my “amniotic” gift for French revealed to me in a student’s mess. I also described my journey from Cape Town via Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique, Chad and London on my way to my intended destination, France. In this chapter, I describe my three-month interlude in London: the English effluences in my life. I must say, though, that these effluences in my early life were far less effluential than my experiences in England four decades later  as a supply teacher in their horrrendous schools.

The peccable priest

I went from the airport straight to the Overseas Visitors Club, which catered for visitors from the British Commonwealth; mostly South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians. In the foyer, a large billboard dominated one of the walls. I scanned the “accommodation offered” and found a room to let. After a few nights at the Overseas Visitors Club, I moved in to the Hostel. Being a recent and devout convert to Roman Catholicism, my new accommodation was a Catholic student hostel for foreigners. Most of the lodgers were English-speaking West Africans. My room was only big enough for a narrow built-in cupboard, a bed, a compact table, a chair, and a little perverse coin-operated gas heater that was not partial to coins. Enter clammy room, pull up chair to heater, slip off soggy coat, shoes and socks, insert coin in the slot, splay toes, and Bob’s your carbuncle.

The chaplain of the hostel was a middle-aged Irishman, slightly built with black hair, black eyes and black cassock. When people, especially students, congregate indoors during cold, snowy winters, the air can become rather ripe. It was February, so taking a bath is not for faint-hearted Africans – black or white ones (moi). On one of those bleak wintry days, I visited the priest in his office. Screwing up his swarthy countenance, he said that black students were rather redolent. Now you might asked why would the priest say such an olfactory thing to me; surely, few (in Britain, at least) would countenance such a thing. Ah, he thought that as I was a South African, I would have a sympathetic ear, if not nose, for his olfactory malaise. Catholics are taught that just because the Catholic Church is infallible, this doesn’t mean that its leaders are impeccable. The priest was not infallible.


Laugh the beloved country

One cold rainy evening, I went to watch a “classic” movie in the hostel’s auditorium. It was jam-packed with residents ripe for some good entertainment. “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was showing; the 1934 black and white version with Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Charles Laughton. The film is about the real life romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s father is very opposed to their relationship. Elizabeth has a mysterious illness that makes her too weak to stand or walk properly. The father continually reminds Elizabeth that she will die if she exerts herself. Robert Browning arrives at the house and they share their passion for literature. They fall in love. Elizabeth gets stronger, but her father tries to persuade her that this is merely a short remission, and therefore needs to remain confined to her wheelchair. Her father behaves very cruelly to his other children.

The reaction of the African audience to this film is my most vivid memory of my stay at the hostel. They laughed at all the “wrong” moments; for example, when the father (Edward Barrett) brutally grabs Elizabeth’s sister’s wrists and compels her to confess that she had been seeing a man (Surtees) without his permission, the hall erupted in titters, chuckles and chortles. There were several other tender exchanges between Elizabeth and Robert that generated peals of unbridled mirth.

Don Quixote

Sixteen years later, I had a similar experience, but much closer to home. I was teaching French at Westerford High School in South Africa. The school put on the musical “Man of La Mancha.” I was Don Quixote (“x” pronounced as the guttural “ch” in Scottish or Yiddish, or Scottish Yiddish). We had a special performance for black pensioners.

In the last scene, an old man lies dying. He once believed that he was the great knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha. Sancho, his devoted manservant, tries to cheer him up. Aldonza (the servant girl, whom Quixote transformed in his imagination into Dulcinea, a princess) pleads with him to remember just once more his former glory. I begin to stir as she helps me remember. I try to rise, the old fire returning. But in that moment, I crumple and breathe my last. Aldonza will not accept my death. When Sancho addresses her as Aldonza, she flashes back, “My name is Dulcinea”.

Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso

Throughout the whole death scene, Sancho was drenching my shoulders with his tears soaking my violet silk shirt that I had bought in Old Jerusalem six years earlier (1973). It was indeed the end for my dear talented supporting actor, for whom the tragedy was too much to bear. And the audience? My dying moments were swallowed up in a rhapsodic hilarity reverberating through the hall.

The Albert Hall: fluent interlude

I bought a “portable” tape recorder, which required a mini-trolley to lug around. One evening, I put it into a canvas carry bag with a long strap and slung it over my shoulder and took the tube to the Albert Hall. Benno Moisevitch was playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” I bought a cheap ticket in the “gods” (the upper balcony). It was illegal to record performances but I did anyway. I held the bag on my lap, with one flap open on the microphone side.

Although I was, like most teenagers of the late 1950s, a great fan of Elvis Presley, I also loved Mario Lanza, whose songs I used to sing outside the window of the girls’ boarding school in Wellington, South Africa where I went to school. Being from a Jewish home, where most of us either sang opera or played the piano or violin, nothing, not even Elvis could erase my “classical” roots. Music in my home – making music – was our main recourse and source of joy. Izzy (my father) played the violin, Minnie, Sonia and Rachel (my sisters) played the piano, and Fanny (my mother) and Sonia sang. Most of the songs, whether opera, “Your tiny hand is frozen” (La Boheme, Puccini) or “Mein Yiddishe Mama,” were in a minor key. When the music was playing, everything was warm; when it stopped, it was mostly sad.

And now Beethoven in the Albert Hall. I felt the effluent of my lonely London life pouring out the sluice gates of my wretched soul. As I was so far away from the orchestra and soloist I wondered how the recording would turn out. I returned to my rhuemy room at the Catholic Hostel, removed my clammy duffle coat, placed a coin into the heater box, sat on the bed, rewound the tape recorder. The recording was excellent.

Of coffins and trolleys

In London I found a job in a clothing distribution firm delivering parcels of clothing to the shops in the London city centre – the same brands to different shops. Some of the shops were in posh areas such as Regent and Oxford Streets and Piccadilly Circus; others were in the back streets of Soho square. On my return visits to these shops, I noticed that the price of the same pair of socks cost double in Oxford Street compared to Soho Square.

Sometimes the consignments were too big to be delivered by hand and when this occurred I used a porter’s trolley. In the 1960s, British Rail sold off many of its old trolleys. They came in useful for the hand-delivery of coffins. I couldn’t find a picture of the trolley I used, but I found a similar one. my one, however, was one long oblong without a front rest, and long enough to transport a whole coffinful of parcels.

 Place a long oblong box on the trolley. Pack it full with parcels. It’s cold outside. I pull the cape of my duffle coat down over my eyes, hunch up against the icy wind and push the trolley down the very busy pavements of Oxford and Regent Streets, carving a path through crowds of death-hating shoppers.

Often there was no need to manoeuvre through the crowd; at the sight of the coffin wheeling towards them, bodies stepped aside in courteous obeisance. A policeman is staring at me. I pass him, I push back my cape to uncover my innocence, and smile.

During my three months stay at the “firm” I had delivered a small graveyard of coffins. I deserved a raise. The boss explained he was already paying me almost as much as his permanent staff.

English Prime beef

After few weeks at the Catholic student hostel in Manor House, I moved into a room in Parsons Green. The Landlord was a young Puerto Rican, who rented out some of the rooms in his house. I once overheard him shouting at his little skinny wife that if it wasn’t for him, she would still be grovelling in the slums of Puerto Rico. She was crying because her husband had moved his wedding furniture into the room of his nimble nubile tenant. The puny pock-marked wife pitted against a juicy piece of prime British beef.

Sunken in the Cathedral

I often sought refuge from the city in the Catholic “Westminster Cathedral” near Victoria station, where I also frequently attended mass. I came upon the Cathedral by accident. I was wandering around the environs of Victoria station when I came across what I took to be a Greek or Russian Orthodox cathedral because of its Byzantine architecture; a strange sight next to the other typical grey London office blocks. The interior of the Cathedral is decorated in mosaics.

The Catholic church conducts its services according to the Roman rite (which is the majority rite) and the Eastern rite. Eastern Orthodox churches such as the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches practice the Eastern rite but they are not in union with Rome. Westminster Cathedral uses the Roman rite.

In London there is also the Westminster Chapel (a misnomer, because it is very big), a Protestant church where Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones (formerly a Harley Street specialist), arguably the greatest preacher and Bible commentator of the 20th century was pastor (1939 to 1968), who had and continues to have such a great influence on so many, including myself. Many decades ago, Westminster Cathedral (1962; Martin Lloyd Jones at Westminster Chapel was close by) was my refuge; today, it would be – if I lived in London – Westminster Chapel. From Jew to Catholic to Protestant; from a Catholic Jew to a a a Calvinist Jew! What is the world coming to? No, a better question is, where is the world going to?

After three months in London and the coffin business, I crossed the channel (with help from train and ferry) and arrived in Paris in February (1962).

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