I began to speak English reasonably well by the middle of 1939 when I was eight albeit with a strong French accent.
As a family we had settled in our idyllic Pangbourne house. Nanny and cook had left us and gone back to France, it was time for my sister Régine and I to resume our education so our parents decided we should attend the village school believing this was a good way to integrate with the locals.
Had we read Oliver Twist rather than Collette’s Claudine, Gigi or Cheri as younger children, we might have been a little more prepared for what we were to experience.
It was mid-term. Up till then my sister, four years older than I, had been a pupil at a Roman Catholic convent in Hendon where all the girls wore navy blue uniforms, so she wore that, and I sported my first school’s green blazer and matching cap. The children at the village school wore whatever they pleased, rather shabby clothes I thought, some even with no socks, their bare feet stuck in heavy duty leather shoes.
On arrival at this institution, we were made to stand among an unruly mob of girls and boys in the playground under the supervision of the fierce headmaster who took the roll call.
He shouted out everyone’s names, they shouted something back in unintelligible Berkshire accents then, after a pause and a deliberate smirk in our direction, he called out ‘Ray Gin Laundry’ and ‘Aundry Laundry’ which got a lot of unpleasant laughs..
My sister was jostled off to Form A, I was pushed and elbowed to Form C, a dimly lit classroom where the headmaster caught a boy spitting at another and caned them both sadistically on the palms of their hands.
During the mid-day break an older girl pulled my sister’s hair and told her to ‘Piss orf Miss Lahdy Dah’ so, fearful, we decided to leave, jeered and whistled at as we ran off through the gates.
Safely back home we recounted our ordeal to a disbelieving mother and begged her not to send us back.
That evening our father listened to the pitiful story with concern. He realized that, as we had all lived within a French community in London we did not fully understand the true English village way of life and that we might be disliked not only for being foreign but also for appearing to be better off than we really were, ‘A bit
like Marie Antoinette and Louis XV, before they were guillotined,’ my sister suggested, a remark my father chose to ignore.
He rang an English friend to ask his opinion about the situation. The friend was amused on learning about the indignities we had suffered and diplomatically informed him that the free educational system in England was not like the lycées in France. 'The British are extremely class conscious,' he said. 'It would be best to find your children suitable private schools.'
And so, glory of glories, a suitable girl's private school was found very quickly for my sister but not for me, so I stayed at home with Mummy. who lost no time in getting a resident French cook who would enable her to devote several hours a day to my education.
My mother, it turned out, was not the best teacher in the world. She did not understand algebra but was pretty good at geometry, so we drew a lot of isosceles triangles English grammar also defeated her so she had me copy out pages from The Picturegoer, a popular film magazine and took me to the cinema to see Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (English history) Conquest, starring Charles Boyer as Napoleon (French history) and Vivienne Leigh in Gone With the Wind (North American history).
Bette Davies, Charles Boyer and Vivian Leigh.