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How we knew.

Notes at the end of 37 years in the classroom.


Harry Guest, 1973.FOR SOME STRANGE reason I was moved in January 1947 into the Upper Vth at Malvern to take “School Cert” in the summer, having missed all the autumn term’s preparation. I enjoyed all subjects except History and Maths ̶ especially as I was insanely placed in Set One of the latter where trigonometry was the order of the day. I still haven’t the faintest idea what cosines are so, having received all of seven percent for Advanced Mathematics in the February Trials, I got flung down (mercifully) to Set Five up to which all the hulking 18-year-old athletes had managed to crawl slowly. A handful of us who were still 14 sat at the front so we could hear what the Rev. B. B. had to say above the hubbub behind us where energetic louts moved all the desks around so they could practise scrums even though (fortunately for me) it was a soccer school.

I failed History (we’d studied seventeenth-century France and something else), got Credits in Eng. Lang.; Eng. Lit. (Chaucer’s glorious Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Julius Caesar, a novel of Scott’s and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury); Divinity; Elementary Maths; Latin and French where you translated proses and decoded unseens  ̶ also Distinction in Geography (we’d studied the monsoon areas and the Weald). In my spare time I played the bewitching Marianne in La Farce du Pâté et de la Tarte. Some among my peers thought the last word referred to the heroine of this little play.

On my housemaster’s advice I took up German in the Lower VIth, offering that and French for “Main” at Higher Cert and English and Latin for “Subsid”. In those far off golden days there were eight “set books” so one read (with relish) Polyeucte, Andromaque, Le Malade imaginaire, Zadig, Nine French Poets, Le Père Goriot, Trois Contes and Anouilh’s Antigone. In German by the end of the year in the Lower VIth we were reading Novellen (auf deutsch natürlich) and went on to prepare Minna von Barnhelm, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Kabale und Liebe, Der zerbrochene Krug, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, König Ottokars Glück und Ende, Agnes Bernauer and Tonio Kröger for the exam. It went without saying that one was expected to read at least one other text written by these authors and other books as well ̶ the French master, a bilingual Frenchman, made us read Les Travailleurs de la Mer over the holiday, a hefty tome. He directed L’Avare in which I played La Flèche (the slow-moving cripple hence called “the arrow”) and used to invite Sixth Formers to his house to read plays and poems (Villon, Ronsard, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Goethe, Heine, Hofmannsthal) in the original. His quietly smiling and voluptuous wife plied us with cyder. As well as lovely films (like Oh Mister Porter with Will Hay and Demi-Paradise which showed my splendidly eccentric prep school English teacher as an extra poking his nose round the door of the carriage to tell Laurence Olivier the restaurant car was open) Mr. Le Grand also showed the whole school foreign films in the same gym (exciting magic as the projector clicked away, its light catching the tobacco smoke lifting from adult cigarettes) though Kameradschaft did not go down well with non-Germanists. The War was still, after all, only a couple of years away. In 1949 I was awarded the Kessler Prize for German. At Speech Day the then Provost of King’s, apparently reputed to be the last man to have slept with Rupert Brooke, gave out the prizes. He shuddered when I confessed what the prize was for and, when a friend of mine went up to collect the English Prize, he asked him warily what he’d won and, when told, said “Hmph. Better than that German fella.”

In Latin we “did” the first 600 lines of Book IV of the Aeneid and of Ovid’s Fasti, some of Horace’s Odes and Pliny’s letters. For English, Coriolanus, Paradise Lost Books I and II, The Rape of the Lock, The Antiquary and wonderful Browning. I bought the blue Penguin T.S.Eliot for one and six.

The enlightened headmaster insisted that all those studying the humanities should attend a weekly 1½ hour lecture on “Science”. There were about 80 of us in the Upper VIth and we turned up prepared to be bored, superior and bolshie. However, Mr. Wilson was such a brilliant teacher   ̶ witty, frank, enthusiastic, full of good stories (he’d served in the Middle East during the War) ̶ he had us listening wide-eyed as he explained the extraordinary phases of the malaria germ. At Cambridge my closest friends (to this day) had at Grammar Schools received a far broader education. What little I know of the sciences I gathered from my father who was a self-taught polymath, my older sister who read Agriculture at Wye having spent the War years in the Land Army ̶ and Mr. Wilson.

As my father was retired, Kent County Council, as well as giving me a grant, paid for me (twice) to attend a summer-school run by Innsbruck University. You could take only £25 out of the country and the university absorbed most of it, but in occupied Austria (in 1950 the tricolore still fluttered outside the Bürgermeisteramt) I drank beer, bought Rilke’s poems, ate cakes (mit Schlag) and was able to afford seeing Hilde Gueden as Cherubino in Salzburg. Although my seat was several hundred yards from the stage I could understand the goings-on in Act IV because I had read Beaumarchais.

Wilfred Noyce, the mountaineer who sadly fell to his death in the Urals, taught us German and how to abseil from the quarry on North Hill. He kindly wrote to a don he knew at Innsbruck who gave me illuminating private tutorials on Goethe’s Faust.

Trinity Hall, ChapelAT TRINITY HALL I descended from a first in French Part I via a two-one in German ditto to a final irrevocable II ii in the Modern Languages Tripos. . . Well, with Michael Bakewell, Ronald Hayman, Karl Miller and Michael Podro I had founded a magazine called Chequer. As a member of the Mummers I’d acted a fair amount, also directed plays, including my translation of Cocteau’s Antigone. At 20, callow, I knew nothing whatsoever about royalties or legal permissions so merely sent off a typed copy to the author via Gallimard. Cocteau wrote back “Merci, cher ami – dites-moi si le public de Cambridge était heureux ou non de notre travail”. Notre travail! So typical of his warmth and generosity. The letter is kept between the pages of the first volume of his many bold and fascinating plays (always referred to as “Poésie de Théâtre”). Later on I played the part of the Bishop in the first ̶ and, as far as I know the only ̶ performance in English of Cocteau’s Bacchus, directed by Ronald Hayman. Over my three years by the Cam I’d seen Battleship Potemkin, Orphée, La Grande Illusion, Citizen Kane, talked, written poems, read them on to Peter Redgrove’s massive tape-recorder, fallen in love from time to time and gone to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the magazine Adam where three of us had tackled T.S.E. himself even though I didn’t have the Penguin on me (he did sign my programme). I asked him brashly to come and give a talk. He replied “I never go to Cambridge in the winter”. We asked him how his next play was going, calling it (in retrospect most inappropriately given the fact Pound and Hemingway had rescued him from the till) The Banker’s not The Confidential Clerk. He said, rather coldly we thought, “You must come and see it.”

The Communists met each day after lunch in a back room of a café near the school while flightier members of staff played ping-pong.

At Cambridge in the 1950s French Literature stopped in 1914 whereas German Lit. hastened up to 1939 so one read Thomas Mann, Brecht and Der Steppenwolf ̶ also unravelling Kafka. At Trinity Hall it seemed most contemporaries read Law or Estate Management so Modern Linguists were fortunately farmed out to Ronald Gray, Ray Kelly and Douglas Parmée none of whom ever cancelled a tutorial. In my last year my tutor wisely advised me not to bother with a Dip. Ed. and discovered a scheme whereby I could teach English at the Annexe du Lycée Henri Quatre (now LE Lycée de Montgeron) all of twelve hours a week (lavish lunches with wine every day except Thursday and Sunday when one of the teachers tried without success to flog Communist propaganda to churchgoers). The Communists met each day after lunch in a back room of a café near the school while flightier members of staff played ping-pong. I found time to write a thesis on Mallarmé at the Sorbonne, overseen by a genial Communist (they were two a centime in France in those days) who found the poet curiously lacking in enthusiasm for Karl Marx.

In 1955 I became a schoolmaster, hoping to convey to future pupils the joy I had experienced in reading, in entering two foreign languages, in being at first baffled then delightfully au fait with Donne, Montaigne, Hölderlin. The examiners reduced the set texts to six. Then four. Now it is possible to get a degree in French or German without reading a single book. I was talking to a German don recently about one of Lessing’s plays and he replied, quite seriously, “We couldn’t ask them to read that now.” “Ask them?” “ASK?” You instruct pupils and students to read what is important then test them on it. Education means “leading them out” to unsuspected landscapes of discovery. At 14 and at 18 you cannot conceivably understand what you HAVE to study. One is told nowadays that Chaucer is “too difficult for them”. Not for my contemporaries, nor for the pupils I was privileged to teach until the semi-literate powers-that-be in the government and elsewhere started behaving like Stalin, Goebbels and the Taleban.

You cannot hope to comprehend a foreign culture until you have steeped yourself in the golden texts of their literature and learned the fascinating complexities of their grammar. In 1989 the French Department at Exeter University asked me to teach Remedial French to Fourth Year undergraduates. Living in France for their Third Year they spoke colloquial French beautifully well – in the present tense. None had ever heard of the Past Historic or the Subjunctive Mood. Few had ever read or attempted to read anything except a newspaper and advertisements. This is not their fault. Standards have been dropping year by year. Those who mark “A” Levels give C and D to grossly inadequate papers which are massaged up later to A and B even though candidates had written “When Macbeth scratched his chin” giving away the fact they’ve seen the film of the play but never read it, mis-spelling various words and even using silly short-cuts like “gr8”. Trendy “academics” refer to this sloppiness as “creating a new language” which is like praising someone who goes the wrong way up a motorway at 100 mph for “discovering a new way of driving”.

One of the reasons why I took early retirement ̶ with sadness, really, because I had very much enjoyed 37 years sharing what I had discovered with eager pupils (hordes of whom were far more intelligent than myself) ̶ was seeing a test paper for the replacement of O Level by GCSE. There was a photograph of a French square. The candidates had to find “where your father would get
petrol and where you would go for lunch” so that the examiner could see they knew the French for “Garage” as well as “Restaurant”.


Harry Guest’s latest publication (from Impress) is A Square in East Berlin, a translation of Torsten Schulz’s acclaimed novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed). He reviewed ‘Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer’, silent conversations, for the Fortnightly here and Peter Dent’s latest work here. Harry Guest was born in Penarth in 1932. He read Modern languages at Cambridge before beginning a career as a teacher in schools and universities in France, Japan, and England. With his wife, Lynn Guest, the historical novelist, he now lives in Exeter. His collected poems, A Puzzling Harvest, was published by Anvil in 2002. A subsequent collection, Some Times, appeared in 2010. An archive of his work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    harry guest – u kno education&hav earned ur place under the quincetree with sokrates – enjoy the long vac

    Wednesday, 1 June 2016 at 12:00 | Permalink

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