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Language Lessons

A slice of late evening sun brightens the smartboard. Latifa’s marker pen squeaks across its shiny surface. She turns to us, ranged in a semicircle of battered desks, and utters an indecipherable sound.

We stare at her, eight adults of varied ages, with grey hair or pierced noses, balding heads, laced shoes or striped stockings, male and female. I glance around me, see frowns of concentration or bewilderment, the weary smiles of fellow sufferers. After a day’s work we have come to grapple with the rudiments of a new language.

Latifa again makes the sound and asks me to repeat it. I try, but fail abysmally. A ripple of sympathetic laughter breaks out among my companions.

‘No,’ she says, ‘not kha as if you’re clearing your throat. This is ha – like when you clean your sunglasses.’

I huff on my imaginary glasses and she rewards me with a nod of approval. Beaming with pride and relief, I remind myself that to utter strange cries in front of a roomful of spectators is what I ask of my own students every day. Safe in the role of teacher, I extend the tip of my tongue to encourage those who have no comparable sound in their own language to imitate th as in think, or to buzz like mosquitoes for th as in then. Laughter meets those attempts, too. It helps to deflect the frustration of an adult reduced to a linguistic infant.

Only now the roles are reversed. I am here this evening not to teach but to learn.

It’s some comfort that I’m not alone in my madness. My colleague, Rhoda, whose bright idea it was to come here – ‘It’ll help us appreciate what our own students go through’ – sits beside me, looking horribly efficient with her neat list of Arabic letters and example words.

Panic, and the fear of incompetence seize me. I am older than I care to mention, and learning the alphabet. After three lessons I have copied – let’s not pretend that I’ve remembered, let alone understood – a dozen or so letters. All look perplexingly similar – a sort of migraine of dots and squiggles. Their connection to sound is elusive, their combination into units of meaning shrouded with mystique. What’s more – and this strikes me as downright unreasonable – each letter can be written in three different ways, according to its position at the beginning, the middle or the end of a word.

So this must be what Shundor feels like, I realise, when he struggles to distinguish between b and d, or between capitals and lower case, or different fonts or styles of handwriting. Shundor, the chef from the Bengal Tiger restaurant, who can cook a fantastic biriani but is unable to to read or write in English. Is he literate in his native Bengali? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Week after week he attends my beginners’ class, always smiling, always courteous, slightly diffident with other, predominantly European students. They are beginners, too, but their familiarity with the Latin alphabet sets them apart. 

For Sundor each word is a struggle, even to copy. His hand seems unused to forming the shapes of letters. Moving from left to right across the page is awkward for him. He can’t keep straight – his words dip and trip higher or lower – Bengali hangs like a row of tangled socks from a washing line.

Now it’s my turn to experience a similar problem as I attempt some elegant Arabic swirls. All I manage is a hesitant scrawl like the path of an inebriated spider. Working from right to left feels like holding the pen in the wrong hand. Even forming letter shapes is beyond me. 

‘What we need,’ a fellow-sufferer suggests, ‘is one of those children’s handwriting books to practice with.’

Rhoda and I exchange glances. ‘We’ll ask the lads to get us one when they next go to Dubai.’

For several years now she and I have been teaching groups of young men – charming, with a delightful sense of fun, if sometimes exasperatingly noisy – from the United Arab Emirates. Their level of English is good, because most have been educated in bilingual schools. Our attempts to learn their language have caused an amused interest. That we’d even bother to try intrigues them, even if the only word I can remember to practice with them is the Arabic for rabbit.

But it’s the students in my beginners’ class I empathise with most. Like Shahira, a year out of Kabul and the burka, blossoming in her new white suede coat with its fluffy collar, her dark eyes made up, her lips painted crimson, bent patiently over her notebook, painfully producing short sentences of near perfection. 

Or Momo, whose pidgin learned from tourists in Tunis bears no resemblance to standard English. Or Katya, with her degree from Moscow University, (a mail-order bride, or so we suspect) married to a builder – ‘Bah! I don’t talk to him – he is so stupid!’ Or Johnny, kitchen hand from the Hot Wok takeaway, whose borrowed name is his only word of English. Their achievements, small as they are, are monumental compared with mine.

So why am I bothering? I don’t want a qualification. It’s not like French or German which once, long ago, I studied at A level as a step towards university. Or Spanish, which I learned by ear when I fell in love, not just with a person but with the very otherness of his culture.

In a way, I suppose, I’m a little bit in love with all of them. With the boys from Dubai and the au pairs from Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, or the South Americans like Lola, who used to sing jazz and bossanova to tourists in Argentina until the Englishman who became her husband walked in one night. Each individual gives me a glimpse of a country, its customs, its alluring strangeness. And, yes, I’m a little in love with all their wonderful and exasperatingly unintelligible tongues, with the whole miracle of language, its myriad intricacies, its patterns of sounds and structures and meanings, its regularities and irregularities – the very mystery of human communication.

Is this a kind of passion? It’s not a word I’d ever connected with teaching before I discovered ESOL. My aversion to teaching, yes. My unsuitability for teaching, maybe. My past avoidance of teaching, definitely  . . . . 

I can feel a lesson on the use of prepositions coming on, I think, as my mind returns to the classroom where I sit, not as a teacher, but a learner. Maybe language really is a passion. But I’ll still be glad when half-term comes. And, no, I won’t spend it doing my Arabic homework.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might like to follow Rosie’s attempts to grapple with Greek in Fragments of a Dream.)

It’s obvious you’re English!

Como se nota que eres inglesa!’ 

As my neighbour walked towards me with his supermarket trolley, I stared at him in bewilderment. Why was he telling me it’s obvious I’m English? He already knew that. I’d often chatted with him and his wife walking their dog in the paseo.

He laughed and began to explain. 

‘I didn’t recognise you at first. I was down the other end of the aisle when I saw you coming the wrong way, bumping in to everyone, and I thought, Oh, she must be English.’

‘The wrong way?’

‘In Spain we drive on the right so we start shopping on the right. But you’ve started on the left.’

It took a moment for the penny to drop. So that rule applied in supermarkets, too, did it? The aisles were streets that everyone had to negotiate in the same direction?

‘D’you know,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here seven years and that’s never occurred to me before. Anyway, in this supermarket, the entrance is on the left, so it seems logical to go down that aisle first, not walk up to the other end.’

‘Not to us, it doesn’t. Even if we go straight to the fish counter, which is just inside the entrance, we all walk up to the far end to start the rest of our shopping.’

But surely I’d seen people wheeling their trolleys from both directions? True, a lot of foreigners used this particular store. But most countries drive on the right, so maybe the culprits were all English. Had I sometimes noticed impatient looks when I met other shoppers head-on with my trolley? Or was I becoming paranoid?

‘Oh well, people must be used to us English by now, with so many of us here,’ I said. ‘It’s some achievement that I’ve got used to driving a car on the right.’

He laughed and began to tell me of his difficulties when he first worked in Sweden, back in the days when they used to drive on the left. Something else I didn’t know.

While I laughed along with him, my mind battled to remember how we negotiated supermarket aisles in England. Did all shoppers in Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s walk in the same direction, from the same starting point on the left? Or was it a free-for-all? I was no longer sure – it was such a long time since I’d shopped there, and my memory was a bit wonky.

Maybe this was just one more example of a bizarre Spanish rule. Either that, or it was a sign of how much I had left to learn. What do you think?

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FIRST LOVE

I didn’t even know his name. He was the boy I adored from afar, who ran round the playground with his coat flying from his shoulders, like a highwayman on horseback, snatching my breath away. He hung by his knees from the climbing frame, his shirt billowing open to show a pale stomach, while I watched, bursting with adoration, speechless with shyness.

Of course he didn’t know my name. He didn’t even notice me, but something jumped inside me like a spark to connect with him. Perhaps it was that gypsy gene trapped in the skinny little girl with her school tie and cardigan, her plaits tied with bows, who only dared to peep at him so he’d never know the way her tiny heart was pumping. He rushed by with his wild black hair and feverish eyes, nearly knocking me over as he chased after a football and went rolling on the grass in a play-fight with his friend, grazing his knees. When he stood up there was blood, scarlet mixed with dirt, but he didn’t seem to care.

He came from the council estate down at Sturry, a drab sprawl of post-war prefabs and mean little terraced houses on the wrong side of Canterbury where the tourists never went. For some reason that I never fathomed, children from that school had been moved to our middle-class primary, which nestled in a leafy residential offshoot of the cathedral city.

‘Rough children,’ my mother warned me, ‘who play in the street and use bad language.’ She’d been cowed into thinking that this holy city was all lace doilies and processions of robed and mitred ministers. Didn’t she know about Chaucer’s pilgrims and the lewd tales they told? Or how the Cathedral altar was once splattered with the blood of Thomas a Becket, twelfth century Archbishop, slain at the orders of his king? She’d left school without completing her education and wanted better for her own children.

My brother had enjoyed a few months at Sturry School, where he’d learned to stuff his hands in his pockets, wipe his nose on his sleeve, belch loudly at meals and say ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’. This didn’t go down too well with our clergyman father, although he himself had started life as a village boy and was no stranger to such habits. But here in the hallowed hub of the Anglican Church, our parents had a reputation to keep up. Our mother, whose own mother had been in service, understood how the gentry lived and was anxious not to be disgraced by her offspring. So when my turn came to go to school, she searched out one which would nurture and refine, only to find her plans thwarted by the influx of ruffians from Sturry. 

When they first arrived we stood in a huddle like a resident tribe, expecting a fight and prepared to be afraid. But they rushed in with a whoop, made themselves at home, and before we knew it we were all mixed up together. Apart from our curiosity in the way they spoke, their talk of outside toilets and two or three to a bed, we soon forgot what all the fuss was about. Children are attracted or repelled by instinct, not socio-economic factors. And, yes, when this black-haired boy galloped past, he whipped up a wind of recklessness which thrilled me.

Later, much later, when I was studying for my A levels, I heard about him from Mandy, a grammar school girl who lived on the same council estate and had remained my friend. He was working as a plumber, she said, or was it a bricklayer, and he still lived down in Sturry. His sister had just got pregnant, and his Dad had died of some lung disease that he’d contracted in the days when he’d been a miner over at Betteshanger Colliery. My childish passion seemed odd to me now. I was about to go to university and the world was opening up for me, while he was rooted right there, where he’d always been.

‘He’s not your type, anyway,’ Mandy said when I plucked up the courage to tell her that I’d once thought he was wonderful. She moved between his culture and mine and knew more than I cared to admit about incompatibilities between the two. In one way she was right: I didn’t want to end up living on the Sturry Estate. But in another way, no, she wasn’t, because a short while later he reappeared in the form of Pete, working-class to his toes. In this new incarnation he was educated and upwardly mobile, didn’t give a toss what anyone thought of him, was totally at ease wherever he went. Pete sniffed and dropped his aitches, and a nerve in his eye twitched, but he could charm the pants off anyone, dustman or duke. His Dad was ex-army and stood in his vest frying up a Full English in their tiny kitchen. His Mum shuffled up the street to the bookies in her slippers, and left her false teeth on the table. ‘Put your teeth in, Jen,’ his Dad would say to her, ‘The Bishop’s coming to tea,’ and he’d wink to let me know he meant my father.

Then one day out of the blue that same little boy popped up again, cavorting in the turquoise waters of an Aegean island, where he somersaulted and gambolled so easily that the spark he’d once set smouldering burned again more brightly, and something in the way he moved and thrilled to his own movement, took me somersaulting with him. This time he called himself Markos, spoke Greek, and his body had grown brown and strong and handsome. But he was still irresistibly full of joyful exuberance, with a willingness to take risks that inspired and excited me. Like children we fell in love by instinct, but lack of language was our downfall. Without the words to distinguish one who fixes from one who designs, I feared that when he was not on holiday he wore dirty overalls and lived in the Athenian equivalent of the Sturry Estate. By then I had grown pretentious, so I ditched him. Many years later, when I was older and a little wiser, I realised my misunderstanding, but by then it was too late to repair the damage.

The same wild boy turned up again one last time in Carlos. Carlos the rebel, now speaking Spanish, the son of a well-to-do family, who preferred to skip school and learn to be streetwise, giving two fingers to Franco and all that he stood for. By the time I met him he’d embarked on a life of rebellion and reckless adventure, which would lead down a slippery slope to the deep despair of mental illness.

So there he was time after time, that little ruffian from the Sturry Estate, metamorphosed into men from different cultures and countries, whipping me into a frenzy of wonder, only to be snatched away by death, or the gulf of misunderstanding, or psychosis. Again and again that wild highwayman has reappeared, in one disguise after another. Each time, as he dashes past, he snatches another piece of me and disappears with it into the distance, still eluding me.

*If you liked this piece, you can read an exploration of love and its complications in my debut novel Fragments of a Dream

*My childhood experiences in Canterbury weave into one of the threads of my upcoming novel Between Two Shores . More news about this next spring.

An amazing read!

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s billed as a medieval whodunnit, but impressed me as a profound and sensitive exploration of faith, complicated by religious convention and human frailty. The period detail of 14th century rural Somerset is astonishing and totally convincing. The characters – pathetic, vulgar, despairing or scheming – are utterly believable and somehow forgivable despite their flaws. The structure – running backwards over 4 days – confused me a little, but didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact I went back and read it in chronological order, which helped me to see the underlying message more clearly. I’m proud to have benefitted from Samantha Harvey’s teaching on the Bath Spa MA!



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In good company

On one very special corner of my shelf, my novel stands beside books by some of the talented writers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing personally.

Alice Jolly and Colette Paul taught the wonderful Arvon course that started me on the journey to taking my writing seriously.

Nora Anne Brown, a lovely fellow student on the Bath Spa M.A. in Creative Writing, won the Lightship First Chapter Prize with this novel.

Kate Henriques, Joanne Sefton and Emma Smith Barton, three of the most talented students on the M.A., shared with me in several tutor groups, and became valued friends and critics of my work.

Michelle Lawson was my indefatigable colleague at North Devon College and has remained a good friend.

Together these books make up a wonderful sampler of contemporary women’s writing. 

Colette’s Whoever you Choose to Love is a collection of poignant but subversive short stories that mingle high and low culture. 

In Dead Babies and Seaside Towns Alice gives a beautifully written but heart-rending account of her journey through miscarriage, IVF and attempts at adoption to a more unorthodox route to a second child. 

Nora’s novel The Flower Plantation is about the friendship of two children in war-torn Rwanda, and springs from her own deep love of Africa. 

Kate blends fact and fiction in The Fat Girl in the Kitchen, an imaginative recreation of the life of her inspiring but infuriating Australian grandmother.

Michelle, in A House at the End of the Track, draws on her linguistic expertise and immense energy to delve beneath the romantic veneer of English incomers in a remote corner of France. 

Joanne’s skilfully written and meticulously researched psychological thriller If They Knew keeps you guessing until its unsettling conclusion.

Emma’s YA novel The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, about the psychotic breakdown of a teenage girl, is utterly convincing and unexpectedly uplifting, and far too good for older readers to miss.

Most of these novels have benefitted from traditional publishers, but a couple were self-published, and one was crowd-funded. Together they showcase the wealth of talent that modern publishing opportunities have brought to light. Seven super books from seven inspiring writers!

La gota fria

Ruth Larrea Author

La gota fria*. How strange to describe a deluge as a cold drop, I thought when I first heard the term. Was it Spanish irony, or a lack of logic? My husband couldn’t clarify. He’s always lived in his head, not in the world outside.

We’d just moved back to Spain and I was cooking a spaghetti bolognese when its simmer sank to stillness in the saucepan. The butano had run out. No spare. No car to go and buy one. The rain pelting down, the wind howling. Desperate, we phoned a cousin, who came at once. Spanish families are like that. He drove us through a downpour from one garage to another. Sold out. Fear of the gota fria had caused a stampede.

At last, wet and weary, we found somewhere that had one. Back in the kitchen, the spag bol began to bubble again. That was when I…

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La gota fria

La gota fria*. How strange to describe a deluge as a cold drop, I thought when I first heard the term. Was it Spanish irony, or a lack of logic? My husband couldn’t clarify. He’s always lived in his head, not in the world outside.

We’d just moved back to Spain and I was cooking a spaghetti bolognese when its simmer sank to stillness in the saucepan. The butano had run out. No spare. No car to go and buy one. The rain pelting down, the wind howling. Desperate, we phoned a cousin, who came at once. Spanish families are like that. He drove us through a downpour from one garage to another. Sold out. Fear of the gota fria had caused a stampede.

At last, wet and weary, we found somewhere that had one. Back in the kitchen, the spag bol began to bubble again. That was when I remembered that the oven was electric. We could have used that and saved all the trouble.

Now, seven years later, the gota fria has struck again. Red alert throughout the province. Torrential storms, whole towns flooded, cars washed away, people drowned.

Our stretch of coast is in a wide open bay and relatively untouched. Dramatic lightning flashes and thunderclaps, winds whipping up the sand, rain lashing down, soaking into the parched ground, covering the salt marshes. Birds have come to drink again. Plants that were dying might flower next spring. The reservoirs, desperately low, might fill.

Nature has reclaimed the beach, so long tamed for tourists. Wild waves roll in, bringing debris from sea bed: stones and weeds, plastic buckets and bottles, polystyrene and fishing nets. The water sweeps away the board walks, digs channels that spread mud and sand over the promenade. Council machines and workers with spades begin to scrape it into huge piles.

On TV the meteorologists explain the phenomenon.

It occurs particularly in eastern Spain and the Balearic Islands, usually at the end of the summer, when a cold front from the north collides with warm, humid air coming in from the Med (26C in September), generating storms and torrential rainfall. Meteorologists use it as a popular term, because on their charts the cold air is shown as surrounded by closed isotherms, often in the shape of a drop.

*la gota = the drop/drip (noun) not to drop/ fall (verb)

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Book Giveaway!

I’m giving away 2 SIGNED copies of ‘Fragments of a Dream’.

If you’d like the chance of winning one for yourself or a friend, please comment with your name here, or on my Facebook author page.

The 2 winners will be picked randomly from the names received before midnight on Monday 2nd September.

I’ll contact the winners to ask for a postal address, and the books will be posted within 28 days of receipt of those details.

If you can share this news, I’d be very grateful!