The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was my charismatic headmaster at boarding school in Malaya, tall, elegant, witty and charming. School was in the cool of the Cameron Highlands, surrounded by jungle which hid both the aborigine Sakai people, and also the communist bandits.
We travelled to school in what were known as coffins, and they felt like it. They were metal boxes on wheels with tiny slits to let in the stifling tropical air. This convoy of coffins was escorted by armoured cars between each one. It usually took me two days to get to school, flying out by a light Auster plane from Kota Bahru to Bangkok, via a change at a lonely air-strip at Alor Star. In Bangkok I changed planes for Kuala Lumpur. Here I spent the night and joined everyone else for the train journey up to the rendezvous with the coffins. We then had another six hours of tough travel before reaching the Highlands in the evening.
We never knew the date of the beginning or end of term until the day before, so the bandits couldn’t ambush us. We children didn’t worry terribly. We might have felt differently had we realised that our school food was so awful because the cooks were giving our rations to the bandits surrounding us in the jungle. I learned this from the headmaster some years after I’d left school, by which time they’d uncovered the problem. Every night the school was patrolled by armed guards, but somehow I never really believed the bandits could be so close. In hindsight, the fact that they were depending on our food was our best protection! I lost half a stone every term.
Robin, my headmaster, decided that the new A level exams which had been introduced a couple of years before, were a challenge that he and I could rise to, and that he would coach me to pass them in one year instead of two. This was a stretch, but I had a one- on-one lesson with him most days.
I would sit side by side with him at a table in the school library while he neurotically smoked his way through a round tin of fifty cigarettes, lighting each one, taking a few puffs and then stubbing out three quarters of the cigarette before lighting up the next. He, like so many army officers I knew then, was still suffering from the effects of the war, only in those days there was no counselling or understanding of their trauma.
I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin ( I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it, and forget about clichés !
He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo –Saxon words, and not pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw, and taught me to write direct simple prose… though you may not believe this now. He also tried to teach me to think for myself, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”
The best training he gave me was to do a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version, and sharpened up my whole writing style. Years later, when I was worried about my children’s exam results, and they in their turn were worried about theirs, I found the passages still marked in my battered Oxford Book of English Prose, and gave them all the same exercises, and they worked the same magic for them too.
And that was it – the nuts and bolts. When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.
And though we revelled in Shakespeare’s exuberant inventions and plays on words, Robin reminded me that the vocabulary of the exquisite King James Bible is only about eight thousand words. I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word, no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.
A month before the exams, my best friend and I went for a walk and ended up having afternoon tea of tomato sandwiches – nothing else was ever on offer – at the Cameron Highlands Hotel, a privilege for prefects if, and when, their pocket money would stretch.
At the hotel my friend saw a young officer she’d met during the holidays, and he and his fellow officer joined us. We had great fun, and then they took us up to inspect their gun emplacements from where they had just started blasting into the jungle. Whether they actually hit any bandit camps I never knew, but the noise was hateful: the sound of crashing broken trees and the thunder of guns echoing around the mountains and blue sky, followed by a moment of horrified silence – the shock of a peaceful world rended by this vandalism – and then the screams and cries of terrified birds. Then a pause, and then the whole dreadful sequence began over and over again.
The chaps took us back to school in their land-rover, so we were back in time. As we reported in, and the land-rover drove off, the young duty mistress gave us stick for hobnobbing with the young men… but we thought she was just jealous. It turned out she was – she had assumed they were her property. She reported us to Robin, and said we had lied about where we were going. We were both stripped of our prefect’s badges and gated for six months by a very angry righteous headmaster who refused to believe that we had not lied.
The next day, feeling sore and angry, I had my usual lesson with him and was shocked to realise that in our study of Francis Bacon that day, we were about to discuss his essay: ‘ What is truth, saith jesting Pilate?’ As I took in the implications of this horrid coincidence, and waited for the head to arrive in the library, I wanted the floor to swallow me up, cliché or no cliche. His courtesy got us through this embarrassing session…though I was in a state of agonising hyper-sensitivity for the whole hour.
A few weeks later the exams arrived, and as I sat alone in the classroom with an invigilator, battling through three and a half hours of rigorous examining, the chaps began their artillery barrage into the jungle again (we hadn’t seen or heard of them since). As they fired over our heads, it was like sitting in the trenches of World War One, or enduring the barrage before the Battle of the Somme,
As I tried to maintain my concentration and keep scribbling, Robin came in silently, took my exam paper, and wrote the time on it, with a note and his signature saying the barrage had begun. When it ended two hours later, he came back in and did the same again. I always hoped that it had influenced the examiners to have pity on me and excuse me any blunders I had made during what felt like the fog of war!
After I’d left school, and he and I were back in England, I used to visit him and his wife who I loved. He would write me zany poems about kipper trees, and do witty parodies of Shakespeare over the lunch-table. He invited me to meet minor Royalty on a ceremonial occasion and came to my commissioning ceremony. And when I became engaged and brought my first husband to meet him, I felt a faint disappointment from him that I wasn’t going to be putting his lessons to better use.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Such beautiful cauliflowers at the moment, so after running the gamut of my cauliflower recipes, I decided to make soup. This recipe is called Crème du Barry after Louis XV’s mistress, and it’s delicious. You need a cauliflower that weighs about a pound or half a kilo. In some butter I sauted the white part of a chopped leek, half a chopped celery stick and a good sized knob of finely chopped ginger. When this is soft, but not coloured, add small florets of cauliflower. Add a litre of stock, salt, cover and boil until the cauliflower is soft, ten to fifteen minutes.
Puree and return to the pan. Stir about three quarters of a cup of cream or crème fraiche, and season with nutmeg, and a little lemon juice if you wish.
Food for Thought
Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open.
Sir James Dewar, eminent Scottish physicist. 1842 -1923