Memories of Small-Great People

Nursery-school actors performing a play stir reminiscences of a writer's childhood

AS far as I know I never took part in a Christmas nativity play.It's possible that I did. Certainly, at an incredibly tender age, I attended infant school in the English town of Bingley. The school was down a grimy cobbled street, and through a pokey doorway set in a soot-black stone wall, not far from the river where my brother and I later went rowing. This sort of school is where little children traditionally perform the nativity play. They still do. So perhaps we did too. I could, for all I know now, have been a donkey, perhaps even a shepherd, but I was less likely to have been chosen, I feel, for a wise bearer of gold, frankincense or myrrh, and definitely not for the part of an angel. I'm also sure I wasn't a star - especially not the star! It's peculiar what you do remember from such very early, very forgettable times. I remember girls skipping - rather big pigtailed girls with cheeks that were Yorkshire bright like shined apples - girls to be wary of - in whatever playground this school boasted. I can remember sitting in rows and singing hymns with words that were just sounds to me - strange sounds like "which-wert-and-art" and "freetheefromthefowlersnare" and "purpleheadedmountain." (I still think that "which wert" is some sort of wild flower if I don't nudge myself and concentrate.) I can remember we were handed various instruments to play. I had a triangle. The simplest instrument for the simplest child. I had no idea about when to hit it, but had to be shown how. I was enchanted by its resounding "ting!" when I did give it a sharp tap, probably in some importantly silent pause when no music was foreordained. I can remember - one afternoon it seems - a distinctly enormous brown Bakelite radio, perched high up on an enormous table above our heads, and we danced and sang around the table as if this radio was a golden calf and we idolatrous Israelites. Out of its dark grille emerged the song "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes, she'll be coming round the mountain when she comes, she'll be coming round the mountain, coming round the mountain ... ." This song puzzled me to no end (and it seemed to have no end). Doubtless the teacher had explained, but I don't think language meant a lot to me then, or else I was just a bad listener; but as I sang my way round and round I was wondering all the time: What will be coming round the mountain? A girl with apple-polished cheeks? Who was she? Where was she? When will she be coming? I knew what the mountain was, no bother: Mountains have always since then been mystically confused in my mind with tables with 1 930s radios on them, and this may explain why I felt no surprise to hear in a geography lesson much later in a different school that there was a mountain somewhere in the world called "Table-Top Mountain." Of course there was. It was in Bingley, at the infant school. That's about all I recall of nursery school, except I was told later that my good middle-class parents got worried when I started to come home from there more than adept at speaking with a broad Yorkshire accent. It was they who told me about their concern years later, so they were apparently not ashamed of their preference for what used to be known as "Queen's English." Theoretically "Queen's English" is the only form of English speech that has no accent. This is nonsense, naturally, but that's the way it is thought of. Everyone else has Norfolk, Devonshire, Lancastrian, or Glasgow "accents." We don't. We speak accentless English. Of course this was in the days before it became not only acceptable, but actually de rigeur, to have a vigorous regional or local accent. A local speech inflection became a sign of solid realism, of believability, even of reliableness. At times when I was in my early 20s I actually began to wish that I had a decent, down-to-earth Yorkshire accent - rather than my sweet, mellifluent amalgam of private school, Cambridge, BBC, and the Queen. I didn't feel entirely authentic somehow, speaking the way I did. Now, at this point in my life, I no longer care if I sound distinctly English and over-educated and middle class; I just use the accent I've got and leave the rest to nature. I THINK it was a few years living in the States that was the turning point in this. American English is enormously persuasive to a "resident alien" (to use the official designation of my status.) An English person does feel quite ridiculous at first getting on a bus in Boston or New York and making an inquiry about direction or fare. Heads turn, the driver's face wears a mask of layed-back incredulity as he says: "Whadyersay?" It's even worse having to repeat it, because then you know everyone on board is giving you their full attention. To yourself you sound like Bertie Wooster, an Edwardian twit, or Winston Churchill. This cultural shock confronts you with a stark choice. Either you learn to speak acceptable American in no time at all, or you assume a blatant self-confidence in your native delivery and say to yourself: m English. Therefore I sound English. Therefore I will go on sounding English. Come what may. Quite." Personally I opted for the second alternative. Some while later my morale was boosted by a telephone information person who when I asked her for information, went silent. I stopped, puzzled. She said: "Don't stop talking! I just love your accent!" Then I realized, with a touch of poignant pleasure, that at last I actually had what I had so longed to have: an accent. All of which has nothing whatever to do with whether or not I acted as a donkey in a nativity play. Except that I would love to have now heard a recording of me braying. What accent did I adopt? That of my infant peers? Or the Queen's bray instilled at home? Who knows. The other day I had the stimulating pleasure of visiting an infant school in Derbyshire. Just South of Sheffield, the accents there are close to Yorkshire. The five year olds took it very solemnly indeed. "You'll 'af ter share it with the animals," announced the Innkeeper, "boot it will be soomwhere to sleep." "It'll be loovly, thank you." "Don't be frightened," announced the angel to the Shepherds, ve got soom news for yer." The third wise man, whose technicolor jeans were waiting for him to reach their size, looked heavenwards and announced: "We moost follow the star!" And with that he showed he meant business by vigorously yanking oop his trousers. This was, in fact, a rehearsal I saw. It was a delight, and it was primal in its innocence. Here was that small-great event enacted in a small northern town in 1991, by small-great people. The blunt Northern speech seemed perfect. It would not have been the same in Queen's English. Though I've no doubt these five year olds could have done it in impeccably royal tones if required. My afternoon in their classroom ended with them singing for me, by special request, "Heilige Nacht." In German. Their teacher, Helen Sabin, lived in Germany. It was hard to know why listening to her class - so well trained, so eager, so justifiably pleased with their performance - made me feel so soft. I wonder, will they remember?

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