I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.

Sergeant B

gymnast near assorted country flags

 

I have always been hopeless at all physical activities such as sports and gymnastics. I enjoy walking and have in the past played tennis half-heartedly.

At school, we had to attend gymnastics classes (‘gym’ for short). In the school I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, gym classes were held at the gymnasium at the public baths in London’s Swiss Cottage. The gym teachers there took a delight in making a misery of the lives of those, like me, who were no good at gym. 

When I moved to Highgate School, my senior (or high) school, things changed for the better. Gym classes were held in the school’s own rather antiquated gymnasium beside the unheated open-air swimming pool. The classes were conducted by a retired military man, Sergeant B.  He was not in the least bit interested in those, like me, without any skills in gymnastics. All that he wanted was that the useless members of the class kept well out of the way of those who had some aptitude for gym. This suited me fine. I used to spend the gym classes seated at one edge of the room, doing nothing.

In summer, we had to swim in the open-air pool. This was quite comfortable if it was raining, but it felt icy cold on a warm sunny day. As with gym, swimming was not one of my strengths. Once again, Sergeant B was not interested in people like me. The poor or non-swimmers were told to stand in the shallow end of the pool and to keep out of the way of the rest of the class.

No doubt it would have been better if Sergeant B had encouraged the ‘useless’ members of the class to gain some enthusiasm for gym and swimming, but I cannot say that I regretted his neglect.

Sergeant B retired many years ago. Nowadays, pupils at Highgate School cannot expect such a casual approach when it comes to physical exercises.

 

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com

Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

A puff of smoke

Three students

 

My father gave up smoking when I was about eight years old. As far as I know, my mother never smoked. I had an aunt who smoked, and entertained us by creating smoke rings with exhaled cigarette smoke. Visitors to our home smoked, so I was not completely isolated from cigarettes and so on during my earliest years. 

I was about 13 or 14 when I went on a field trip with other boys from my class. On that outing, I was shocked to see many of my fellow pupils lighting up cigarettes when we were out of sight of our teachers. I did not realise until that moment thay young children smoked.

In those early years, and possibly still today, I was a contrarian. Being that sort of person and seeing my peers smoking made me decide never to even try smoking, and  this situation remains unchanged tosay, so many decades later. It was not for health reasons nor because of economic problems that I have never taken up smoking. I simply did not want to be one of the crowd.

I often wonder if the situation had been reversed whether I would have become a smoker. If no one else had been smoking, would I have lit up just to be different? I doubt it because as a child I was far from adventurous.

Running

 

On my first day at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, I was asked to choose which sports I would like to participate in. As the only one on the list that I had heard of was football (soccer), I chose that. On the following day, I had to join the other new boys in a trial game. I was horrified by how rough everyone was during this match.

The day after the match, two senior boys came to speak to me. They regretfully announced that I was not considered good enough to play football at Highgate. That did not surprise me, but what did was how solemnly they announced the news to me. The two school officials told me that I could select another sporting activity. I chose ‘cross-country running’, a sport that I had never heard of. I was told that I had chosen well. And, so I had.

Cross-country running was almost completely unsupervised. We were trusted to get changed into running clothes and then to trot around a route through the grounds of nearby Kenwood House. Being unsupervised, I saw no reason to run or to get tired. 

My system on games’ days was to get changed, visit the school ‘tuck shop’, buy some snacks or confectionary, and then to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful grounds of Kenwood.

Once a term, we were accompanied by our house-master on a run. He tended to lead us through rough ground and marshy areas. On one occasion, he stopped me and said:

“You don’t look muddy, Yamey”

I replied:

“Well, Mr Bowles, I thought that the object of the run was to get exercise rather than to collect mud.”

Much to Mr Bowles’ credit, he accepted my explanation, which was not the whole truth. Actually, I wanted to avoid getting dirty so that I would not need to waste time having a shower at the end of the afternoon,   which would have delayed my departure for home.

Why?

ADAMLITTLE

 

In the early 1960s, I attended a preparatory (‘prep’) school between Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park in north-west London. A prep school in the UK is a place that young children aged between 5 and 11 to 13 years study in order to pass examinations that will admit them to Public Schools, which, despite the name, are actually private schools.

At my prep school, The Hall School, we were made to sit in alphabetical order (by surname) in the classrooms. We were addressed by our surnames. I suppose arranging us alphabetically might have helped the teachers remember who was who.

My surname is Yamey, so I always sat in one corner of the classroom. There were often no other boys at my end of the alphabet, although occasionally I was in the same class as someone with the surname Yeoman or Zangwill.

Often, we had to learn poetry off by heart (by rote). We would then have to recite the poem in class. Invariably, the teachers began be asking the boy at the beginning of the alphabet to commence the recitations. Then, the other boys in the class took their turns, as the teacher worked his way down the surnames towards the end of the alphabet. Often the bell marking the end of our 45 minute lessons rang before the teacher reached my end of the alphabet and I was spared the embarrassment of having to try to recite a poem that I was never able to remember. I was hopeless at learning poetry, or anything else, by heart. I can only remember things if I can put them into some conceptual framework in my mind. Poetry did not seem to fit anywhere in my head!

What continues to surprise me is the lack of imagination of our teachers. Why did they always start asking us to recite by beginning with the pupil whose surname was at the beginning of the alphabet? Why did they not begin at Y or Z and work in the other direction?

Many years later, our 6 or 7 year old daughter attended a school in which students were asked to do things in alphabetical order of their surnames. Unlike me, she was always keen to take part in class activitues. So, one day she informed the school that she  her surname had been changed to one begining with D. That way, she was always asked to participate in class activities that were being done in accordance with the alphabetical order of the children’s surnames. 

All went well until we received the termly bill for the school fees. It was addressed not to Dr and Mrs Yamey, but to Dr and Mrs D…. I told our daughter that as the bill was not addressed to us, I would not be able to honour it. Our daughter quickly agreed to change her surname back to Yamey.

Saved by a coffin

Old people

Before I began studying at Highgate School (in North London) in 1965, joining the Combined Cadet Force (‘CCF’) was compulsory. The CCF was military training for teenagers, who were dressed in full military uniforms. The school was well-equipped for CCF training, having an assault course, a shooting range, a fully-equipped armory, and several members of staff who had been, or still were, high ranking military officials. 

Fortunately for me, joining the CCF became voluntary just after I joined the school. The CCF trained on Tuesday afternoons. Those, incuding me, who had opted out of the CCF, had to do something worthy instead of military training.

For a while I was enrolled in ‘Digweed’, a squad of pupils who helped with gardening in the school’s numerous properties. I was assigned to the garden of one of the boarding houses. I could not tell a wanted plant from a weed, and was therefore quite useless. We used to be given cups of tea halfway through the afternoon. It was tea with milk, which I detested in those days. So, my only useful contribution to Digweed was watering plants with the contents of my tea cup.

After a spell of Digweed, I was asked to visit a home for elderly people every Tuesday afternoon. My task was to chat with them. People who know me now will not believe how shy I was when I became a visitor to the home, but I was. The elderly folk living at the home used to sit in high backed chairs arranged around the walls of a large room. I was supposed to talk with them. I tried, but almost all of them were too far gone to respond. These Tuesday afternoon visits were dreary and depressing, as well as being pointless.

There was one old lady, who was very chatty and friendly. However, she was not present every time that I visited. She told me that whenever she could, she would run away from the home, but would always be found and brought back.

One Tuesday, I rang the doorbell of the home. One of the staff opened the front door, but prevented me from entering. Behind her, I saw a coffin resting on a trolley in the hallway. “Best you don’t come in today,” the staff member whispered to me. I know it sounds wrong, but I was really pleased that the coffin had spared me yet another afternoon of misery with those poor distressed gentlefolk.

GOING NUTS

I was at school throughout most of the 1950s and ’60s. I came into contact with numerous other children. As far as I can recall, not one of my fellow pupils ever admitted having a food allergy. A few had asthma or wore spectacles, but none seemed to suffer from allergies.

When our daughter attended schools at the beginning of this, the 21st century, many of the children with whom she studied had food allergies, notably nut allergies. Some of them even carried adrenaline filled epipens with them to be used should they come into contact with allergens. Our daughter was, luckily, not allergic to anything, but felt left out because she did not have an allergy. It seemed to her that having an allergy or wearing orthodontic appliances were almost ‘fashion statements’

Why are food allergies so common now? Is it a result of obsession with today’s hygiene and fear of germs. We live in the era of the hand sanitizer and obsession with ‘use by’ dates. Today’s children are shielded from allergens from a very tender age and this impedes the development of an effective immune system.

Research done in the USA some years ago compared the incidence of allergies in kids brought up on farms, where dirt and animals are hard to avoid, with that in children brought up ‘hygienically’ in cities. It was found that the city kids had a far higher incidence of allergies than their country cousins.

Our daughter first visited India when she was 7 months old. It was impossible to stop her putting just about anything she found on the ground into her mouth. I like to think that this might be why she differed from many of her peers in that she missed out on having allergies.

So, if you have young children, do not go nuts about shielding them from external factors that might prevent them needing to carry an epipen in the future.

Now, I will play the part of the Devil’s advocate. It is remotely possible that the apparent absence of children with allergies during my school days was because any kids with allergies had died of anaphylactic shock before they were old enough to attend school. I hope not!

A writer’s confession

I studied for my O Level examinations at Highgate School in North London. These were important state exams taken at 16 years of age.

My English language teacher was more interested in discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than in teaching us the basics of English Language as required for passing the O Level in that subject. I cannot blame him entirely for what happened when I sat the exam.

My poor ability in written English must have contributed to my failing the exam. The examiners must have been further annoyed by my essay on the subject “Is it fair that nurses get paid less than successful pop singers?”. I wrote that it is, because, I argued back in 1968, a pop singer gives pleasure at any one time to a greater number of people than a nurse.

Fortunately, I have forgotten the name of my of my English language teacher, but I still recall the teacher, Mr George Sellick, who helped me pass my O Level retake.

Sellick taught us advance level biology for the university entrance examinations. Every week we were required to write three essays. On Saturday mornings, we had a long lesson with Sellick. This session was dedicated to discussing the essays that the class had submitted. Our teacher used to read out to us the highlights and lowlights of the week’s essays. He pointed out what was good in essay writing and what was to be avoided. I found these sessions to be very useful.

I retook the English Language exam 6 months after my first attempt and passed quite well, albeit not excellently.

During the last decade or more, I have been writing and publishing a great deal. I now call myself ‘an author’. Whenever I think of myself as an author, I remember my disastrous first attempt at the English O Level, and feel that maybe it is a bit of chutzpah* to take up the same profession as truly great author’s such as Balzac and Dickens.

Although my written English has been gradually improving, I often get my wife, a retired barrister, to read through what I have composed. She is a reader rather than a writer (although she used to write much for her professional work). Unlike me, she got top grades in English Language at school, reads a great deal, and has a superb command of written English. I am enormously grateful to her.

*chutzpah is a Yiddish word implying barefaced cheek