Back to School
The World Outside is So Uncool
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Last week, I promised that I would tell you about my going back to school, and, as soon as I’d written that line, this song popped into my head, and I haven’t managed to shake it loose, yet.
So, pull up a chair, get comfy, and I’ll regale you with tales of adult education, integration, hi-fis and Spine Chillers.
Towards the end of 2021, things were going pretty slowly chez nous. We still had the old, asbestos roof on the coach house and were struggling to find the artisans to come and do the work. France still had a lot of Covid measures in place, so things hadn’t opened up properly with regards to music and nightlife, but things were starting to shift. I had been working from a temporary studio set up in the master bedroom, while Anikó and I slept in the guest room. It wasn’t ideal, but we were making it work.
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What had reopened in France were schools and colleges. As soon as that happened, I set out to find a French language course. Like many Brits, I had “studied” French in school and had managed to develop enough language skills to ask for a ham sandwich… and that was about it. However, now I had chosen France as my home, I didn’t want to be one of those Brits who spend a lifetime in a country without ever coming to terms with the lingo. Also, in a practical sense, I wanted to be able to work with French people and not find myself trapped inside some kind of anglophone clique.
I do have sympathy for a lot of Brits. I think we are raised with the idea that we can’t learn languages, and, because of the dominance of English internationally, to a large degree, we can get away without other languages. They say that, to learn a language well, you need the opportunity and the necessity. Sadly, for us anglophones, we rarely have both of those things at the same time.
I had the slight advantage that I had learned another language in my thirties. When I lived in Hungary, I studied Hungarian every chance I got. A big part of it was the challenge. If ever you meet a Hungarian, they will tell you that their language is the most difficult in the world and that it was impossible to learn.
Well, that’s just a red rag to a bull, to me.
French, at least, is much more closely related to English, so, if anything, I was confident that it wouldn’t be as hard to learn as Hungarian.
Initially, I signed up for two lessons of 3 hours a week, which was a great start. One thing that amazed me about this course was that it was entirely free. Free education? Imagine that! The classes were good, although the level was very mixed, but it wasn’t enough for me; I wanted to learn faster.
Here is the amazing thing: Brittany runs full-time, French language courses for foreigners that last five months and are not only free, but you get a very generous stipend - at least equal to unemployment benefit - to attend one. How’s that for encouraging integration and employment opportunities?
Of course, attending college full-time for five months when you are trying to build a studio and develop a business in a new country does seem a bit mad, but I’ve always preferred the short, sharp shock. I figured that, while some Covid regulations were in place, and I couldn’t really do a whole lot on the studio, there wouldn’t be a better time for me to go back to school. Also, if I could get French under my belt, then, when things really opened up, I would have all my skills in place to jump right in, in France.
So, that’s what I did. December 2021, I returned to college to study on a full-time course in French language, culture and citizenship.
There is more to this “Back to School” story. Part of the course was to do seven weeks of work placements. I wasn’t just going back to school. I was going to serve “apprenticeships” at two of the best analogue studios in France.
I’ll tell you all about that soon.
Next week: Back to the School of Life
As I mentioned in the introduction, I’ve not been able to get Jon & Vangelis’ song ‘Back to School’ from their 1981 album Back to School out of my head, so I dug it out to listen to. Immediately, I was transported back to my childhood, sharing a love of music by listening to vinyl records with my dad.
Back when I was 8 or 9, my dad bought his first hi-fi. Before then, he’d had 8-track cartridge players (my favourite 8-track he owned was Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, just for that awesome cover), mono cassette players and ancient “music centres”. Music centres were essentially sideboards with record players and radios built in, as well as a cupboard to store your vinyl.
Dad’s new hi-fi, sneakily bought while my mum was in hospital, was a very high-spec (for its day) Technics system that he got for half price, as Technics were discontinuing its range of cool, silver components in favour of those cheap-looking black ones that followed. It may have been half-price, but it was still a lot of money, and I’m not sure if mum has forgiven him, yet. In dad’s defence, this was a great buy because it lasted decades. The record player is still going and forms part of my hi-fi to this day.
Dad had a friend back then, called Jimmy Bird, who was a huge music fan and had a great collection of vinyl of all different styles of music. Each week, dad would borrow a handful of Jimmy’s records, and we would listen to them on the new hi-fi. Whole new worlds of music were opened to me by Jimmy’s record collection, but the ones that stuck in my head were Logic (also 1981) by Hideki Matsutake’s Logic System and a whole bunch of records by Vangelis.
Logic, at the time, was a complete enigma to me, but the album cover blending an image of bamboo with circuits inside told me that they were using high technology to make a music firmly rooted in tradition. I was sold.
Among the Vangelis albums my dad borrowed was a collaboration with Jon Anderson of Yes called The Friends of Mr. Cairo, which is where I heard ‘Back to School’. Like Logic, this album is a mix of fairly traditional, pop music forms and grooves, only played on synthesisers. However, this time, we have the Accrington Milkman on lead vocals, too.
Although the big hits on the record were ‘State of Independence’ and ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’, for me, the stand out track was always the epic, twelve-minute ‘The Friends of Mr. Cairo’, inspired by the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. One of the fun features of this track are the snippets of dialogue, with actors doing impressions of ‘40s movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and the unmistakable Peter Lorre.
All of these actors have incredible voices that are instantly identifiable. For my generation, we caught movies like Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat on BBC 2, at around 6 o’clock, after children’s programming on BBC1 had finished. To further embed these voices into our consciousness, caricatures of these actors would crop up regularly in the Looney Tunes cartoons alongside Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig.
Peter Lorre’s voice is so distinctive, that it’s almost impossible to adapt The Maltese Falcon without having the actor playing Mr. Cairo do a Lorre impression. Every time I hear his voice, or an impression of his voice, I’m transported back to my childhood listening to a radio adaptation of The Maltese Falcon that I stumbled upon in the Radio Times while planning my Christmas TV viewing. If the actor playing Mr. Cairo in that wasn’t doing a Lorre impersonation, then, at the very least, that’s how I remember it.
For me, that’s the real power of sound, its ability to transport me in time and space, to instantly access my memories, accurate or not, including the sensations and feelings of the time. A ticking grandfather clock will always take me back to dark childhood winters and Spine Chillers on TV. The Doctor Who theme will transport me to Saturday afternoons and visits from my grandparents.
The End… My Friend
When I started this week’s newsletter, I knew I had a lot to say about going back to school, but it now seems endless. My relationship with education has always been a positive one, and I feel very lucky in that. There is nothing I love more than learning, and, looking back, I realise that my old career in academia was probably driven by never really wanting to leave school. In my family, I was always called a “college pudding” and an “eternal student”. I used to get a bit offended by this, but now those terms feel more like badges of honour… well, maybe not the “pudding” bit.
Outside of formal education, although I never served a formal apprenticeship, I learnt much by working alongside my dad and my Uncle Pat. In the next newsletter, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learnt from working alongside French professionals and the other opportunities that this knowledge has opened up.
Going back to the Jon & Vangelis section, if you are a fan of synth pioneers and love wacky comedy, I highly recommend you check out Live at the Necropolis: Lords of Synth. Niche in-jokes aplenty and very funny.