Posted in Personal life, Writing

Life Lessons Learned from School

Click the cover image to read the whole the magazine online

In my Young By Name column in the March issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about the most valuable and lasting lessons from my schooldays.


As my daughter muscles down to revision on the home straight of her GCSEs, I can’t help wondering which of the many facts and concepts she’s memorising will be of greatest value to her in later life. When I ran an informal survey some years ago, asking the alumni of Westonbirt School the most useful thing they’d learned at school, my favourite answer was “Not to sign anything I hadn’t read – and at my prep school, how to steam open an envelope”. While I can’t promise to better those examples, here are the most lasting takeaways from my own schooldays.

How to Write a Three-Point Essay

Our English teacher, Mr Campbell, spent many lessons hammering home this simple but clear strategy for essay-writing. First, pick three points on your chosen topic, outline each one in a separate paragraph. Top and tail the trio with an interesting introduction and conclusion, and you’re done. Why three? Perhaps because it’s the magic number in rhetoric, or because of the limited staying power of a class of fourteen-year-olds – or because that’s all he could face marking. I must have written hundreds of three-point essays during my working life, and I wish he was still alive so I could thank him.

Never Give More Than One Excuse

I can’t remember which two excuses I gave to Mr Crane, the school’s pantomime director, when I wanted to bunk off an after-school rehearsal, but neither of them was genuine. (The real reason was that I wanted to get to the local bookshop before it closed.) Whatever they were, he saw straight through them, kindly letting me off the hook with the advice that, for future reference, giving more than one excuse is unconvincing. I never missed another rehearsal. He was a wise man.

The Masses Are Asses

This blunt statement was frequently shared by Mr Judis, our A Level history teacher, when trying to explain to a classful of teenage idealists why so many bad decisions had been made in the name of democracy. The topics of our study were the causes and effects of the First and Second World War, twentieth-century East-West relations, and the fall of colonialism, but as I listen to twenty-first-century news stories, his words frequently echo in my head.

So if, Desert Island Discs style, I had to pick just one of these school-life lessons as the most important, which would it be? It would have to be the three point-essay. Just cast your eye back up the page. Do you see what I did there?

If you’d like to read my archive of columns written for the Tetbury Advertiser, you can buy the first collection as an ebook or in paperback – click here for more details



Posted in Family, Travel

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg City road train
All aboard for a multi-lingual tour of Luxembourg

Our Easter motorhome trip across France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my daughter the importance of learning a foreign language. This is  something I’ve been keen to impress upon her ever since the British government rescinded the rule that made it compulsory to study French to the age of 16. 

Although I’m not fluent in any language other than English, I know enough French and German to communicate effectively in all the countries that we traverse this holiday. Even though many of their population will be far more proficient in my language than I am in theirs, I take pains to at open every conversation with a few words in one of the native tongues.

As always, the people I speak to are pleased to hear a tourist make an effort, no matter how feeble. When our camper van runs out of water on the Luxembourg border, I’m able to ask very politely at the nearest  campsite if we may fill up our tank there, even though we’re not stopping overnight, and I negotiate a reasonable rate. The gnaediges Frau in charge is devastated when the freezing temperature prevents her standpipe from cooperating, “because you took the trouble so ask me so nicely in German”.

When continuing cold weather in Trier saps the life out of the motorhome battery, I’m able to accost the nearest motorist in an appropriate manner to ask for a jump-start.

Understanding the  local road signs enables me to navigate effectively whenever roadworks stump the satnav. My husband is surprised when I explain that Einbahnstrasse means “one-way street”:  he’d thought it was just a very common road name. He’d also been wondering why so many signs from different towns directed us to the unmapped resort of Umleitung. “That’s German for ‘diversion’,” I tell him.

Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany
Husband and daughter dwarfed by the glory that was the Roman Empire

Even so, I’m happy to opt for the English language setting on the Luxembourg City tourist train commentary. It’s accessible in any one of eight languages at the touch of a button.

On the upper deck of the open-top tourist bus in Trier, plugging my complimentary earphones into the socket on the panel in front of my knees, I flick to Option 1 for English and instruct my daughter to do the same.

On the hour-long sightseeing drive, pleasant music plays during breaks in the heavily-accented commentary. We pass breathtakingly ancient attractions: a 2,000 year old Roman bridge, still strong enough to withstand 21st century motor traffic; an amphitheatre with such precisely planned acoustics that it’s possible from the back row to hear a match struck centre stage; a beautiful Roman bath-house whose high arching walls alternate layers of brick and stone simply for decorative effect.

In between the music and the commentary comes the odd practical, deadpan aside  that makes my husband and I laugh aloud:

“Please refrain from throwing anything off the top of the bus.”

What kind of tourist are they expecting? I look around for the Visigoths and Vandals that ransacked the Roman Empire, but there are none (or if there are any, they’re hiding).

Suddenly I realise my daughter did not laugh, despite this being the kind of comment that would appeal to her slapstick sense of humour. I ask her why she’s not amused.

“Well, I can’t really understand much of what the lady’s saying, because her accent is so strong,” she sighs. “All I’ve understood so far is ‘hop-on, hop-off bus’.”

I peer down at the socket for her headphones. It looks as if she’s got it set to the right channel: 1. When I borrow one of her earphones to double check, I realise what’s happened. I may not speak this language, but I know it when I hear it. She’s inadvertently tuned in to Channel 7, which looks very like Channel 1 from this angle.

“That’s Dutch!” I inform her.


Enlightenment spreads over her face and finally she starts to laugh.

“No wonder I couldn’t understand it.”

Fortunately, our hop-on, hop-off bus ticket allows us unlimited trips within 24 hours of purchase, so we go round again, this time with Laura tuned in to the English commentary. And she’s careful not to throw anything off the top of the bus.

Posted in Family, Personal life

And So This is Christmas…

Image via Wikipedia

It’s as if the whole world is on fast forward.  Sitting down to write this month’s column, I can’t help feeling it’s only a week since I sent in the last one.  Getting my daughter ready for her weekly tapdancing class on Tuesday, I had the impression that I’d done the same the day before.   I still have to concentrate when writing a cheque to ensure I don’t date it 2009.

When I was 14 my history teacher, Ms Trebst, explained to the class that one’s concept of time changes with age.  A five year old has to wait 20% of her life from one Christmas to the next, she told us, while for a 50 year old, the interval is just 2%.

We were sceptical.  Ms Trebst had a reputation for getting things wrong.  For a whole lesson, she’d talked to us about “Visgoths” before we pointed out that as it was spelt Visigoths it must be pronounced Vizzy Goths.  “What, like Fuzzy Bear?” she gasped in disbelief, as if this tribe of barbarians couldn’t possibly be called something that sounded a bit cuddly.

Ms Trebst was also renowned for debauched habits. To mark multiple-choice tests , she’d use her cigarette to burn holes in a sheet of A4, making a template for where the right answers should appear on the test paper.  She offered extra marks if we stapled chocolate to our homework.  But at least she marked it properly.  Another teacher failed to spot a cake recipe that my friend had embedded in her essay to test her theory that he graded your homework according to how much he liked you.  She got an A.

But time was on Ms Trebst’s side.  I’ve been around long enough now to know from first-hand experience that  she was right.  I perceive everything to be happening 7 times faster than my daughter does, because the ratio of our ages is currently 1:7.  It must be tough being a new-born baby.  That first day in the big wide world, it must seem literally like a life time between the first feed and the next.  No wonder babies cry so much.

Oh well, better sign off and email this column off before the deadline – then sit down tomorrow to write the next one.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  Of course, it will be over all too quickly, but don’t worry, there’ll be another one along before you know it.

(This post was originally published in the December 2010 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)

Posted in Family, Reading

Write On

What new-fangled technology most irked the ancient Greek philosopher Plato?  Apparently it was the written word.  He feared that the spread of literacy would make people less reliant on their memory, causing their brains to atrophy.

Now that just about all of us can read and write, any discussion of memory is more likely to relate to computers rather than brains.  IT is certainly making us less reliant than our forefathers on the information we carry in our heads.

I’m old enough to remember the advent of the pocket calculator.  In 1973, my father bought, at vast expense, the revolutionary Sinclair Cambridge.  It was a very basic calculator by modern standards, but how we marvelled at it.

Photo taken by me of a Sinclair Cambridge pock...
Image via Wikipedia

We preferred not to believe that it would dull our powers of mental arithmetic, but now that such things are commonplace, there must be few modern accountants capable of what my grandfather, working in the 1960s, could do: add a whole page of figures in his head.

To my mind, dimming the ability to memorise facts and add figures is not the main problem caused by our dependence on computers.  What worries me most is that future generations will lose out on archive material.  Paper may biodegrade in time, but it outlasts most computer chips and disks and is a lot more solid than ether.   Whose computer can still access the 5¼” floppy disks that were industry standard just 30 years ago?  Even the fact that we measured them in inches must seem laughably old-fashioned to the latest entrants to the workplace.   We set aside paper and pen at our peril.

So in your understandable enthusiasm to fill your recycling box every other Tuesday for our commendable village kerbside collection, think twice about throwing away every bit of paper.  At least hang on the 125th Hawkesbury Show Schedule for posterity; guard safely this issue of the parish mag, especially if it mentions you by name.  In time, your grandchildren will thank you for it.

(Oh no, Debbie Young’s blog can only be accessed online!)

This post was originally published in the September 2010 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.

Posted in Family, Personal life

May Day

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

For me, the concept of May Day will be forever associated with an annual ritual that took place at my infant school in Sidcup, a Kentish suburb of London. 

Each May Day, or the closest school day to it, the girls from the oldest class became “May Maidens”.  We had to dress in white frocks and the prettiest girl (how un-PC is that?!) was crowned May Queen.   A determined band of mothers raided everyone’s gardens for roses and greenery to make into wreaths for the Maidens’ hair.  They also wove two long floral ropes for the Maidens to carry.

The May Day Procession

For the May Day ceremony, the whole school turned out onto the field.  ‘The Elizabethan Serenade’ played over the tannoy, while two lines of May Maidens, each carefully carrying one of the ropes, processed slowly to the far end of the field.  Then they stood still while the May Queen and two attendants proceeded down the length of this floral aisle.  Once the May Queen had taken her place on her throne, the Maidens sat down on the grass and the Headmistress addressed the gathered crowd of parents and children.

I don’t remember what the boys had to do, but they must have found the whole thing pretty dull.  Not so the mothers, who ooh’d and aah’d as we walked by, snapping away with big, boxy cameras.

Those were gentler days, I think to myself, wishing that my own small daughter had the chance to take part in such an idyllic ritual.  But then I realise with a start that the backdrop to this quaint ceremony was far from idyllic.  For behind where the May Maidens sat, all along the edge of the school  field, was a long row of air-raid shelters.  Though the war was over long before we May Maidens were born , most of the adults watching our procession would have been all too familiar with the inside of an air-raid shelter.

A Sheltered Life?

Me, centre, aged 6, as a May Maiden on the school field
Funn how it seems it was always summer when I was a child…

These days it is hard to imagine that Health and Safety inspectors would allow any school to have such dark, dingy, unlit sheds on the school field.  Risk assessment for air raid shelters?  There’s an interesting thought.  In those days, of course, children were allowed to enjoy a little danger, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason the shelters were retained.  I suspect there was an inkling that we might needed to use them again.  This was, after all, the 1960s.  The Cold War was in full swing.  Even as recently as 1980, the government was issuing its infamous “Protect and Survive” leaflets, telling us how to guard against a nuclear attack.  (Unbelievably, top tips were to sit under the kitchen table or to take a door off its hinges if a table wasn’t to hand.)

We live in more peaceful times.  My daughter may not get to be a May Maiden, but at least I don’t have to worry about a bomb falling on her school.   All the same, she’d look awfully pretty with roses in her hair.

(This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2010)