Autobio 2000

A Personal View of the Twentieth Century

by Robert Brow   Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2000

Chapter 2

French And English

There were no facilities for my education in Karachi, so in the summer of 1929 I was left at the age of five with my mother's parents in Brussels. At that time, the people of Flanders were viewed as peasants and their Flemish language was despised. French was the only language used at my school, rue Faider, a five-minute walk from our house at 114 Chaussée de Charleroi. I remember being dressed as a cock, and reciting a poem: I used to sleep in my mother's childhood bedroom. On the wall was a picture of a woman with two little wings sprouting as she lay on a cloud with her eyes closed. I used to think that if heaven required lying on a cloud doing absolutely nothing for ever and ever, I had better not end up there. My grandparents had their rooms at the back of the house overlooking the large garden. Next door to me was my Uncle George's room and his workshop. Across the landing was the room of Maud Shea, who had been my mother's Scottish governess and who lived out her days in my grandmother's home. As far as I know, she never went back to Scotland. As children we used to be terrified of her and we made faces behind her back. In September 1933, at the age of nine I was taken to Tormore School, Upper Deal, Kent. I spoke English like a Frenchman, and I was teased mercilessly as a "Froggie."

The Headmaster was known as "Fidget." Mr. F.G.Turner's passion was to produce boys who would go on to get first class honours at Oxford or Cambridge. I soon discovered that this required learning all the dates of the kings and queens of England, writing Latin poetry, and reading classical Greek at sight. French would be no problem, except that Mrs. Meredith forced me to learn all the grammar which I never even knew existed in Belgium. There was soccer before the Christmas holidays, rugby till Easter, and cricket in the summer term.

I must have got a bit of religion. Every Sunday we had to put on our Eton collars and form a crocodile to walk five minutes to Morning Prayer at the local Anglican church. We then had to learn the Collect prayer for that week off by heart. There was also a weekly Scripture class, but the only bit of theology that I remember was "Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, were the only two who ever got through to the land of milk and honey."

I acquired some useful skills. We wore shorts, and our stockings were held up by garters. I could slip off a garter, take aim, and flick a fly off the ceiling during the daily hour of prep. Later, I learned to do this with an elastic band, which gave me great renown. In the summer term we each had a six-by-twelve foot garden plot, and once I won the garden prize. I also got the bed making prize for the best envelope corners in the school.

At Tormore, Mr. Turner believed that corporal punishment was the stick that made boys learn. I never got "four of the best," but every week I knew that if I didn't get my next lot of interminable Latin and Greek verbs off pat, or my equations done, I would be called in to "Fidget" to bend over and get the blue marks on my bottom that I often saw on others.

A senior red-headed boy was a terrible bully. He terrorised the younger boys till finally Mr. Turner had to intervene. He called Dillon's parents down and gave them the choice of having their boy expelled, or having him slippered by all the little boys he had been mean to. They gladly chose the latter. The bully had to bend over a chair, and I remember using my gym shoe to whack him as hard as I could on the bum. I was impressed by the fairness of this British justice, none of us younger boys were ill treated again and Dillon did as well as the rest of us.

The downside of being sent to Tormore was that the shock of trying to learn to speak and behave like an Englishman gave me an excruciating stutter. It never left me till I went into the army, and even now my face can contort and the words get stuck when I am in a tense discussion.

There was a month's holiday at both Christmas and Easter, and a six-week holiday during the summer, and I spent all these in Belgium. My cousin, Jean Franchomme, used to come over to play with my Marklin electric train set. It was spread out on the floor of a huge room on the third floor. He never understood why I wanted to take the whole thing apart every holiday and change the tracks. I explained that I wanted to improve the system till every movement of the three trains running at once, the points and signals, the lights in the stations and the cranes could be operated from my control box.

When I was 13, Mr. Turner sent me to try out for the scholarship exam at Stowe. As I had been warned, I had to write a poem in Latin verse, and translate a passage of Greek prose. He expected me to fail, but for my final year he knew exactly what had to be drilled into me to succeed the next year. I arrived in Chatham House in September 1938, and I was assigned to a senior boy. I had to polish his boots for drill parade and run errands at all hours. As in other boarding schools for boys, a fuss was made of the sweetest looking newcomers. My own housemaster was later dismissed for inappropriate behaviour with young boys. By the age of 15, I also had an angelic favourite to have a crush on from a distance. But my impression is that for most of us these same-sex feelings at school were only temporary till the holidays. There was a wonderful party at my Aunt Winifred's home in Church Stretton where we played "sardines." I enjoyed hiding in a tight cupboard with one of the girls, and I hoped nobody would find us.

My best friend was Kay Irgens from Norway. We used to find excuses to avoid playing the required soccer and rugger on the cold playing fields, and we took refuge in the Stowe Art School. It was presided over by Mr. and Mrs. Watts. They introduced us to the Impressionists, and I have loved Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and especially Van Gogh ever since. Kay could draw a battle scene with dozens of horses and soldiers in fierce combat, and every muscle and facial expression was right when the pen and ink first touched the paper. If he had lived he would have become a famous artist to rival Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. He was commissioned about the same time as I was into the Coldstream Guards, and was killed in France.

I was only average as an artist, and I decided I was more suited to be an architect. But I excelled in the Puppet Theatre downstairs. I painted the scenery, and worked the strings from which the puppets' arms and legs dangled. The opening scene of Dr. Faustus began with "Variety is the spice of life." How true I find that is every time I read it.

Over in Belgium the most religious member of our family was my favourite aunt Émilienne. She would go to mass while my uncle Jacques sat for twenty minutes in the car smoking a cigar. Every year she gave a big garden party at their home, 210 avenue Louise. She would promise two dozen eggs to St. Anne (my mother's saint) if she could have a fine day for the occasion. If the sun shone brightly, she would have the eggs delivered to the Convent of St. Anne. She could have paid for 24,000 eggs and not missed the money. If it rained for the garden party, however, St. Anne got nothing.

Every Sunday we went to my grandparents' country house at Rhodes Sainte Agathe. I sat facing them on the folding seat. Behind me the chauffeur longed to let the big Minerva 1924 (exactly my age) pass the other cars on the road, but my grandmother watched the speedometer and he had to stay under 60 kilometres per hour.

My grandfather's interest in the country was planting trees on the estate. My last memory of him was giving instructions from a chair on the patio: "Move back ten paces, a bit to the right. That's the place, dig the hole and put it in." I would spend all my time till the next meal with the gamekeeper. His job was to keep out poachers, and kill the hawks and magpies so the pheasants could breed in sufficient numbers for the annual shoot. If a rabbit escaped down a hole, Joseph would put snares on all the exits except one and insert the ferret he carried in his bag. I would position myself to shoot any rabbits that came hurrying out. And the ferret followed them. Once I wounded a young deer that bounded by, and I still remember it looking at me as it died. It was hung for three day s in the basement before it was served as venison.

Every Thursday, my uncles, aunts and cousins gathered for dinner at my grandmother's home. My favourite dessert was Nègre en Chemise: a layer of ice cream covered with thick chocolate sauce topped off with whipped cream. This was made by Maud Shea, who had been my mother's governess and somehow stayed on. The cook was the chauffeur's wife, and she presided over the huge kitchen in the basement.

We always spent the summer holidays at my grandparents' villa on the promenade at Blankenberghe. Our favourite trick was tying a thread to a 25 centimes coin (it had a hole in the middle). As the crowds walked by someone would bend down to pick up the money and look sheepish when it disappeared. We also used to run out with 5 centimes for the couple who came by with the barrel organ. We assumed they were very poor, but later we discovered that they owned a huge house in Brussels.

There was a beach hut on the sand below where the deck chairs were stored with our swim suits, towels, and buckets and spades. I loved kite flying, and every year I got a bigger model till we could hardly hold the roller and handle in the wind. Mine had a "telegram." This would go up the string till it hit a piece of wood tied across just below the kite, which made it snap back parallel to the wind, and it came back down again. I invented the idea of filling a paper bag with water to send up with the telegram, and when the catch released it would drop vertically on people sleeping on the sand a hundred meters away. They would get hopping mad and look around trying to figure out who had thrown the bag of water at them.

There was a terrible annual battle on the sand. The D'Hondt family and the Franchommes used to pile up opposing ramparts a few metres apart. The girls would get buckets of water from the sea to make the wet balls of sand that the boys hurled at the enemy tribe. It usually ended badly, but we were not meant to go and tell our parents what had happened. Every two years when she came from India my mother used to say "If the D'Hondts do it, don't do it."

Strangely, though we hurled damp balls of sand at each other, we agreed that the real enemy were the English. They used to come to Blankenberghe in the summer as a herd of tourists, making rude remarks as if they owned the place. Somehow I felt I was nothing to do with them, and my cousins never viewed me as a foreigner.

I travelled between Dover and Ostend a total of 35 times and, after the first time, I was on my own. As soon as I began speaking French on the cross channel steamer, I hated and despised the English. On the way back, as soon as I began speaking English, I hated and despised the French. This went on till the age of fifteen, and it never struck me as strange. The English have of course hated the French since William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. And the feelings were already mutual when Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake in New Orleans, 1431. It has always seemed to me obvious that our culture and national feelings come with the language we speak.

Nearly forty years later, after living as an Anglophone Canadian in Ontario for twelve years, I drove over to settle our daughter Rachel who had a job in Montréal. I went to a store and was served in French. When a couple walked in and expected to be served in English, I found myself thinking "What are these stupid Brits doing here?" My wife, Mollie, says that if she had seen me speaking French, she would never have married me. My whole personality becomes different. I would certainly be a separatist if I lived in Quebec and spoke French.

Britain and Germany were already at war, but I was able to spend my Christmas and Easter holidays in Brussels. The Easter holidays ended a few days before the Germans occupied Brussels. My cousin Claire had the sweetest smile, and she was my partner for the dancing lessons we attended. When I came back seven years later after the war I was disappointed to find she had been married to Gustave D'Hondt, a law student at the University of Louvain. He was the leader of the tribe of D'Hondts who fought us each year on the sand at Bankenberghe. Now he is an avid gardener, and his lawn is immaculate. When I go to eat at their home in Brussels I try to find a pissenlit (dandelion) that he has missed to remind him his garden isn't perfect. We always talk about our childhood battles. My last term at Stowe the Headmaster, J.F. Roxburgh, wrote to my parents to ask if I could be confirmed as usual at the age of fifteen. I had classes with Tim Brooks, the school chaplain, and I later discovered he must have taught me the essentials of Christian faith. I must have been impressed by the solemnity of the occasion because I took communion a couple of times, but for the next eight years I declared myself an atheist.

That last term I took the School Certificate examinations and, based on them, J.F. got me a place with Mr. Sandbach who would be my tutor at Trinity College, Cambridge. I did not know about this till eight years later after I was demobilized. When I wrote to J.F. letting him know I had survived the war, he told me to contact Mr. Sandbach and, sure enough, he said he had been expecting me to come to Trinity College. I decided that it is not what you know, but whom you know that gives you the breaks in life.

Chapter 3...