Things I Remember From School


THE VILLAGE BLACKSMITH

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

blacksmith

….strange how stuff from school days sticks, resurfaces, acquires new meaning as you grow old(er)……
I find myself humming Schubert’s ‘The Trout’ taught us by Mr. Ronald Center, our inspiring music teacher. As well as ‘ Who is Sylvia?, and  Schumann’s ‘ To France and to freedom two grenadiers/from bondage in Russia were tramping/And bowed with shame and foreboding they came/Where lay Russian soldiers camping...’

And I can still recite  Longfellow’s Blacksmith poem which I still don’t like much but which our very uninspiring English teacher made us learn by heart (as well as  Shylock’s

Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine—
And all for use of that which is mine own. “
which I like more and more – but never got round to finding out what exactly was Shylock’s ‘gaberdine’.
And  she also made us learn Gray’s ‘  The ploughman homeward plods his weary way‘ which I admire now but  found impossibly dull then
and Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’
and so on.
I can clearly remember the context in which I learned all these scraps – the teacher (Miss B, was that a wig she was wearing? Mr C with his long black hair which was okay because he was a musician), the classroom (cupboard on the right side, windows on the left) , the pupils ( Jimmy H who laughed at everything, Grace L who was so tall and so beautiful, Ralph M who couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r’ and whose father owned the local fish and chip shop), the feelings (anxiety, embarrassment, amusement, interest, boredom):
Jimmy now farms his father’s farm;  Grace went to Southampton; Ralph was killed in a car crash; the teachers…….I didn’t go to any reunions; I lost touch.
But over the years I have kept in touch with the poems and songs  –  the village blacksmith with his strong and sinewy hands, badly-done-by Signor Antonio, the two patriotic Grenadiers, the beautiful Sylvia, the constant ploughman  –  they have all stayed with me,  and in addition I have become aware of  and appreciate the hidden ideas and the skills which created and infused these poems and songs we learnt so reluctantly so long ago…….
And oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude.
They comfort me.

Schubert


FICTION PROBLEM

And Schubert. What shall I say of Schubert? That he taught me to turn a deaf ear to tittle-tattle? That he told  really funny jokes? That he must have done something wrong? Only that last one, I’m afraid, only that last one was true. But his jokes weren’t too bad either:
” When he was at the airport it occurred to Peter that  Gertrude, his usually reliable neighbour, hadn’t come round for the dog. He tried calling her on her mobile  every day but got no reply. And when he got back, a fortnight later,  what did he see waiting for him on the doorstep? “And of course you say, ‘the dog’,  and he says,   The 14 bottles of milk he had forgotten to cancel.”
That was one of his jokes. Not really funny? Perhaps it’s the way I write them. They were certainly funny the way he told them. Wry. Dry. He was fond of one-liners, he was good at themDid you hear about the dyslexic guy who walked into a bra?
He could rattle off a dozen or so in the time it took you to down your pint.

So I asked the man if I could join his aerobics team and he said it depends how flexible you are and I told him I couldn’t make Tuesdays.
We all had composers’ names: I was Mozart; my London contact was Bizet even though she was a woman. Blond. Big-boned. Wagner would have suited her better.
Where  did I meet Schubert for the last time?  Oddly enough at midday under that outlandishly huge astronomical clock in the main square with all the tourists waiting for the clockwork Jesus. Noon or midnight were the real treats when Jesus popped out followed by all his faithful, brown-robed disciples. People applauded as if they were real characters.
As usual Schubert was late, not that that worried him in the slightest. He never apologised however late he was, never explained what had kept him, just breezed in with some joke that made you smile.
When I left home, my mum said: “Don’t forget to write.” I  remember thinking: “That’s unlikely – it’s a basic skill, isn’t it?”
We were taken by Schubert  to the sleepy little town of  Strakovica  where we picked up Sibelius (and where Stevenson got the idea for Markheim, his short story about a murdered watch maker). We had a beer at Ticktalk’s, the pavement cafe which had formerly been the shop of the unfortunate watchmaker (whose murderer was never found). The sun was shining but it was cold enough for Schubert to put on his big black overcoat.
After that we went on to the very stylish glass and chrome building in the town centre where I was to give my lecture, a strangely transparent place for such secret shenanigans. At the ornate glass door, Schubert put an arm round my shoulders and said, ” If I don’t see you through the week, I’ll see you through the window,” his last and by no means his best joke.
I never saw him again.