10 August 2017

Daniel Pennac: Chagrin d'école (2007)

The most annoying thing about Daniel Pennac's Chagrin d'école, to me at least, is the way it eats into your brain, forces you to think back to your own experience of education. I found my reminiscences of my teachers taking over. I certainly wasn't what Pennac was then called – 'un cancre' (or 'dunce') – although my educational progress was marred by poor education, what teachers thought I was and what I actually was.

Of my primary education I have very few positive memories: there was a weird guy (Robertson, Robinson, I give up) whose hair was kind of plaited at the front and he used to hit students' backs when they couldn't come up with the right answer. And then there was the headteacher who used to teach us as well: a sadist called 'Pop Martin', whom I used to call 'Monkey Mush Martin' because that's what he looked like: he used to slap arses if a mouth didn't cough up with the right word(s). I distinctly remember one teacher (whose name I forget) bursting in on excusing the person teaching for his interruption, pointing to one of the pupils and asking 'Do I frighten you?' Well, under the circumstances what answer could the pupil come up with but a negative? I don't vividly recall much else of Seely Primary, Sherwood, Nottingham, and it's probably just as well.

Before I went to High Pavement Grammar, Bestwood Park, Nottingham, Monkey Mush Martin burst into the classroom and feigned incredulity that I hadn't dashed into his room and announced (as if it were the Holy Grail) to him that I'd made it to the school. As my experience of High Pavement proved, I was underwhelmed, and had every reason to be so.

But oh, the horrors of High Pavement Grammar! Memory is obviously selective, and we all tend to remember the best times and/or the worst or the funniest. I think Baudelaire was on the menu at the time, but anyway a French teacher called Rudd (and if I ever knew his forename I forget) was asking a question which involved prostitution. The guy next to me was my former friend Raf Pérez, who showed me a note on a piece of paper saying 'Watch Rudd go red.' Rudd saw the manoeuvre, shot up in appropiate anger and indignation and demanded to know the content of the note. Raf hesitated, but knew he had to say something as outrageous as the note (only not so personal), and just said 'Are you going down the Scotch Bar tonight?'. There ensued an obvious bollocking by Rudd (who once, in private, pompously informed that he knew people who could run circles round me intellectually) but the truth was skilfully avoided by Raf.

The truth always seemed to be hidden at High Pavement, which (to me and many others, I know) just seemed to be a breeding ground or a playing field in which teachers could display their neuroses. Music rehearsals for the horrific speech days (how things looked were vital) were given more importance than, er, education.

There were fortunate breaks from the boredom and insanity of it all, such as the intentionally eccentric English teacher Bill Gray, who almost always wore odd socks and claimed the Earth was obviously flat. In his local boozer, The Grosvenor on Mansfield Road, a little after I'd left the school, he joked that he wanted to put on a school play, Oh Calcutta! (incidentally a pun on the French 'Ô quel cul t'as !', or 'Oh what an arse you've got!'), the lead role being taken by 'the kid with the biggest cock in the school': well, we can all have our fantasies.

For the record, I thought the English teacher Keith Dobson was by far the best of a poor bunch, in spite of his being (like the other English teacher, the writer Stanley Middleton (always Stan Middo to us)) also a dreaded Leavisite, those infuriating people who believed that a work should be read as is, without biographical, social, psychological, etc, umbilical attachments. In retrospect: how can much knowledge be known of a book if no outside knowledge of it is allowed?

My father thought I was a waster and wouldn't sign any university forms, although my mother (bless her) was quite willing to. No, I had principles, and worked for three years to gain independent student status before taking a BA in French of the University of Leicester. I loved it, especially the year in Albi (lengthened to two with a little bit of cunning on my part). But I'd always wanted to continue, be an eternal student or something, get an MA, even (some hope) a PhD. Just who did I think I was?

And then, years later, I filled in a form to study Literature three years part-time with the Open University. And it worked like a dream, I drank in any information I could get, and read, read, read. My tutor for most of the time, Dr Stella Brooks, had faith in me, and that counts for multitudes: I gained an MA with Distinction, my dissertation on local author James Prior's novel Forest Folk seen as a dialogue with the New Woman.

But there were problems: shortly before getting my MA I had a truly bizarre interview with a certain Dr Guy of the University of Nottingham, who told me that I'd be wasting my money going for a PhD, and that I should be taking an MA (again!) but this time with Nottingham University: the wonderful Stella's email reaction to Dr Guy after I told her of her assessment: 'nevereardover'. And a Stevie something (who didn't even have a PhD) of Nottingham Trent University scoffed and told me I'd never get a PhD.

Thanks to Stella's efforts I obtained a three-year bursary (including a research trip to Southern Illinois University) from the Open University to study the interwar working-class anarchist writer Lionel Britton's work in the context of other British working-class writers of the time, along with (then) contemporary novels by outsiders, in a Sartrean context. I had a marvellous time!

And I passed, which shows that (like the 'dysorthographic' Daniel Pennac) if a teacher has faith in you, you'll have faith in yourself, and succeed.

My other posts on Daniel Pennac:

Daniel Pennac: La Fée carabine | The Fairy Gunmother
Daniel Pennac: La Petite marchande de prose | Write to Kill
Daniel Pennac: Journal d'un corps
Daniel Pennac: Au bonheur des ogres

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