My mother spent most of her mornings discussing the day’s menus with our fat, french, resident cook and, on Sundays, gourmet friends were entertained to luncheon or dinner, interminable meals during which I had to sit at the table with the adults in order to learn about life and improve my mind. The educational conversations that I remember from that time, when not about the last amazing meal consumed or the next amazing meal planned, was centred round the abdication of Edward VIII because of some American woman sleeping with him, an Italian called Mussolini invading Addis Ababa, a Spaniard called Franco killing his own people and, in 1938 a very important agreement being signed by politicians in Munich which was a relief to all as it meant that my father would still be able to import Foie Gras from Strasbourg and caviare from the Caspian Sea.
Up till then I had been taught how to read and write in french by a Nanny from Toulouse who had dry hands, wore a starched uniform to impress the neighbours and had the unpleasant habit of hitting me with a hairbrush when I got things wrong.
One fatal day, despite protestations and ignored bouts of pretended coughs, I was delivered into the hands of a Miss Fern who ran a local establishment of learning. I was made to wear an apple green cap and apple green blazer with a crest on the breast pocket bearing the legend ‘Fern Bank School’,
The school was a living hell for me from day one. I had hardly ever mixed with other children and the sharp nosed teacher of my class was a Miss Kennedy from Ireland who had a remarkably short fuse. She took an instant dislike to me and, to avoid the irritation of my inane expression which signified a total lack of comprehension about anything, she put me right at the back of the classroom. Towards the end of the first hideous term when, I suppose, she had to think of writing a report on my progress, she made the effort of checking what I might have learnt. Having written a simple mathematical problem on the blackboard to test my multiplication abilities and asked me for an answer, she completely lost it when I remained silent and petrified. Storming down to my desk she pulled me up, shook me violently by the shoulders and screamed into my face ‘ Three times seven is twenty one, you stupid boy, have you learnt absolutely nothing since you’ve been here !!!?’
I naturally burst into tears.
‘Excuse me miss, ‘ the little boy at the desk next to me bravely dared, ‘ but I don’t think he can see the blackboard miss.’
‘Can’t see the blackboard? Then why the hell didn’t he say so ?’
‘He doesn’t speak our language miss.’