La Plume De Ma Tante

Posted By on 12th January 2017

At junior school I sometimes had trouble with words. I can remember quite clearly one situation where we had to read to the teacher from a long list of them. I was doing OK but got hopelessly stuck with ‘canary’ and perhaps more understandably ‘anxious’.

Maybe if I’d been learning to read today I’d have been ‘labelled’ with some form of reading difficulty with a long name and an acronym, but it was the early 60’s and instead I was just made to feel inadequate and embarrassed.

It didn’t get much better at grammar school. Although I’d mastered and become quite good at English, I was hopeless at foreign languages.

It began in the first year with compulsory Latin and French, but after a couple of years I was allowed to drop Latin. I quite enjoyed watching Mr Connell underline the various parts of speech on the blackboard with a different coloured chalk, I can still remember them now, but when it came to anything more taxing I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

Just to prove that last point, here they are, along with their ‘coloured chalk’ marks, and I promise I didn’t ‘Google’ any of them.
Accusative (Pink); Nominative (Green); Vocative (Pink and Green); Genitive (Blue); Dative (Purple) and Ablative (Brown).

That left me with French. My dad tried to help, he’d remembered a lot of his French from his school days, and his maths, but although he did his best I’m afraid his brand of ‘La plume de ma tante’ teaching did little to help.

If my junior school days were filled with the relatively private minor embarrassment of ‘canary’ and ‘anxious’, then my grammar school days were filled with the complete and utter classroom humiliation of ‘puis-je’.

The French teacher Miss ‘Busty’ Hampshire despaired of me and rightly so, I was rubbish. By the time we got to ‘O’ levels I was allowed to drop French as well. That’s how bad I was.

I liked maths a lot and was pretty good at English by this time, but put me anywhere near a foreign word or name and I was hopeless.

Fortunately I didn’t need any foreign languages in my 36 years working for DWP, indeed during my 5 years as a visiting officer I learned lots of new words, and I’m pretty sure they were all Anglo-Saxon!

It wasn’t until Premiership football clubs started employing foreign players that I had a problem again. Take Chelsea for example. I can cope well with ‘Pedro’ and ‘Oscar’, but when it comes to ‘Cesar Azpilicueta’ I’m back in the classroom again struggling to cope.

So why is it, given this almost life-long foreign word aversion, that one name which is both long and foreign has stayed with me and rolls off my tongue at a moments notice with consummate ease, even though I rarely get the opportunity to use it?

What is this magic word I hear you cry? Well, it’s 2 words actually, ‘Metasequoia glyptostroboides’ otherwise known as the Dawn Redwood.

“A vigorous deciduous conifer making a large, narrowly conical tree to 25m, with flat sprays of narrow, pale green leaves that turn brownish-pink and yellow in autumn.”

Why I should remember it’s name is beyond my understanding. Why I should be talking about it now is a little easier to explain.

For one of my Xmas presents Peter bought me a selection of carefully chosen flower seeds and included among them were half a dozen ‘Metasequoia glyptostroboides’.

So in a week or two there will be some serious seed sowing going on at ‘Grassy Bottom’ and who knows, in a month or two I might have a small crèche of deciduous conifers with a long foreign name.

What’s that I hear?

Why it’s Miss Hampshire calling from beyond the grave. “Judith Greenwood used a French word!”

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