The year is 1976. It is the beginning of the first term and Waltham Forest College of Adult Education is buzzing with activity and the endless noises of students – mostly foreign but some natives too. The foreign ones are almost all fee paying, the native ones all from a poor or working-class background and confined by such to the East of London.
This was and remains an unusually large college, without an excellent reputation really, but with a truly magnificent building. At the time, it was headed by an almost invisible Principal, who became even more so after being exposed for making an openly racist remark that “all Africans have smaller brains”. There were in fact very few Black students around from what was commonly known as Black or Dark Africa. The Principal then declared that his statement was essentially directed at these types of Africans and that their visible absence meant that they would not have benefitted from any kind of higher education anyway. Needless to mention that he would have been fired either way, for in the late 70’s, racism was not acceptable in education.
Even more visible was this: What divided the foreign students also divided the teachers of English, namely class. Some were of the old colonial type; others barely making a living. The richer they were, the more generous they appeared to be. There were, however, as in every other social space, factors of continuity which both divided and united the permanents and transients.
The students were from all over the place. Some came from the “Homelands” of the vast British Empire who were not really in need of learning English as a Second Language, despite their varying accents. Others were from the oil-rich countries. Others yet were second generation immigrants or were “naturalised” through marriage to British citizens. A few, although not refugees as such, had arrived from war-torn places. The purpose of the last group was primarily to help small family businesses in need of trusted relatives to assist them in return for free food and housing. There was a very strong sense of familial honour and social control exerted on this group. A slight delay or deviation from the bus route taken “home” might have resulted in hours of strict questioning.
Starting off with the teachers: There was Mrs. Margrett, who was gracious enough to lose her temper one day regardless of who was a full fee-paying student and who was not. Although she was always extremely well-dressed, punctual and serious, upon early encounters with so many foreign names, one day she lost her temper and almost screamed: “I really don’t understand why we have to teach English to many foreign people!” A statement which perhaps seemed reasonable at the time, but certainly failed to see just how easy it might be to master her language in a short period of time if one spoke so many other languages much more complicated than hers. To prove her utterly wrong would be a hard challenge, given the short period of time (a mere six months or so) dedicated to E.S.L before one could even begin to gain a simple Ordinary National Diploma (O.N.D.). Mrs. Margrett was from the suburbs of London. She would travel in and out of the City because her husband, a fellow teacher, had refused to live in London and had repeatedly proclaimed that he was utterly fed up “with the stench of aimless shoppers in large and developing supermarkets”. He would be very happy to go on a pleasant stroll and get small items of food from the local shops, but other items would have to be purchased by her. She was responsible for the cooking, for him and their son in the evenings. Luckily for all, she was a good driver and stopping at Sainsbury’s on the way back always did the trick, even when she had cracked a bone in one leg, following which she had been off for several weeks. There was no shortage of temporary replacements for her position. Mrs. Margrett came back fit as a fiddle, and actually whistling in the corridor as she always had, welcomed back by her students. Much had happened in her absence.
Then there was Mr. David, who always wore a bow tie (papillon), a formal suit and a big smile, and if asked an intelligent linguistic question would actually burst out laughing and say: “You see, that is exactly what I mean!” Mr. David confessed openly that he stood in full admiration of anyone who spoke more than one language. What was truly impressive about him was the unanimity of his language, appearance and heart. He was reportedly gay, but so kind and respectful to all that one was intuitively inclined to think he was merely a womaniser.
Least but not last of them, was Mr John, who was a reasonable teacher but was not trustworthy in other ways. Disillusioned with life as a “young” father and a marriage which seemed to have failed him, he pursued other channels of releasing his tensions, which would have been unacceptable to all his students, presumably to college authorities, and certainly to his wife. Upon meeting his wife nearby, also a fellow teacher of English in one’s humble home, for a gesture of foreign hospitality, one would immediately recognise that the relationship between Mr. John and his wife was based on nothing but a broken heart and soul on her part and a restless ego on his, disguised under the banner of admiration for the pains she had suffered during childbirth and the equally painful recovery period which had not yet ended. She mourned the days when she was slimmer and fitter. One felt obligated to invite them both to be patient while serving an affordable homemade meal, which they both seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
The canteen at the College was of crucial importance, offering the nearest choice for food and snacks such as sausage rolls, baked beans on toast, English tea, and of course the ever – present renowned native sweets such as apple crumble and custard and apple pie. On Fridays, when the legendary battered Fish and Chips and mashed peas was served, one had to queue for a long time to be served. The dinner ladies were always very serious and occasionally grumpy due to the large level of demand, especially on Fridays. On Wednesdays, vegetarian meals were provided but were confined to egg curries and rice. Unfortunately, boiled eggs on their own could only be provided at a higher cost, as they were meticulously spared to be put inside the curries. This, however, was not the students’ only choice, because immediately across the road at the Y.M.C.A. similar foods were served to both young men and young women, which was itself another puzzle at the time. England had, of course, been a practically secular state for a long time, so the religious connotations were less puzzling. And just a little further down, newly opened and expanding ethnic shops were also flourishing, such as a sit-in café called “Ankara kebabs” and a carefully positioned Chinese takeaway. The Kebab place was run by an old man resigned to his fate as his wife had left him a few years after arriving in London, but he was happy to have imported Ali, his exceptionally hard working, dedicated, young and strong nephew from back home to do the heavy work that he could no longer do himself. He trusted no one else. On occasion, the kebab shop would offer evening jobs to students from the college, mostly for cleaning and waitressing. The money was nothing to boast about, but it did pay for the rising cost of notebooks, stationary and textbooks.
The French teacher, whose name escapes one due to her seemingly colonial attitude towards everything including teaching her own mother tongue (not to mention her almost incomprehensible English) was puzzled by why her class was practically cancelled due to a falling number of attendees. Her teaching was replaced, of course, by well-spoken and well-mannered immigrants who spoke better French and English than her. They would not shock one at that tender age regarding why learning about the well-known private behaviour of French presidents, as well as learning about the beautiful “Parie/Pakhee” and the world famous but extraordinarily ugly and steely Eiffel tower (if visited during the day without the lit lights) had to be a natural part of learning French, particularly at that cost. Admittedly, the poor French teacher was not a racist. If questioned as to why she did not return to Paris, given that she had no customers as such to learn her mother tongue, she admitted that it was because the French were indeed racist, which was the original reason why she had chosen to stay in London permanently. Occasional visits back to Paris would involve visiting aging parents who were too old to come over for a visit. Unfortunately, as French was, at the time, the only second language offered at this particular college, and it was not possible to learn any language online like it now is, the students vouched that if they ever needed private tuition in French, they would call her directly. Impressed with the generosity, she put her home number on the board and emphasised that if she were out, the students could leave a message with her English husband. The question that remained in one’s thoughts was: If cities were indeed gender neutral in French, why had she been the only candidate to teach it in the first place, and why would anti-racist women not resist all that has just been described?
Interestingly, the most humane, safe and wonderful lessons one learnt as a very young student who hardly spoke a few words of English, were from fellow E.S.F. students who had arrived from all over the world, some with extremely complicated histories, and others for a genuine opportunity offered by generous parents to explore the world. In the case of the latter, learning English as a second language was indeed a secondary concern altogether. Some were from cities large enough to represent half the world; others from continents visited by the same. Nonetheless, the affinities formed either at E.S.L. classes or at the canteen, re-united them all into more major battles ahead.
Those who stayed on to continue, would move to learn serious business-related subjects, namely compulsory two-year long courses in Commerce, Law, Accountancy and Statistics. Business English was a must, of course. But failure in each would mean either a repeat examination or total disqualification.
Here, the Head of Department – let’s call him Mr. Savage for the moment – was a married, nervous and rather presumptuous man on women’s cycle of maturity, who nonetheless had fallen in love with a most eloquently dressed and intelligent teacher of Statistics, a divorcee with a young son. The Head was not yet divorced himself but understood that marriage was a union of hearts and he would disappoint his wife and children when the time was right. His main commitment was to his job and to ensuring that he could get the best team to promote the image of the College.
Private matters and secret love affairs aside, this was a different world altogether. Most post-E.S.L. teachers were of excellent calibre.
Computers had just emerged, as had the binary methods of digital communication. Predictably, the computer room was almost as large as the Canteen, with punch cards and endless streams of papers and tapes crossing each other to meet at some point or requesting to be replaced through silent waiting. Extraordinarily, the computer teacher was an elderly gentleman, perhaps by far the oldest permanent member of staff, which was quite puzzling to say the least! His patience and grace were limitless. Asked when he had mastered this new art, he would always answer through mathematics, and explain that when he retired as a teacher of mathematics, he looked for something new to occupy his mind. Did he like the new machines? He remained unsure. He did comply with his promise though, that as he was always more interested in people than machines, and he would pass on the final year examination questions to us as a gift! Not knowing whether he was joking or serious, most students marvelled at the subject, and they were the ones who really were shocked on the day of reckoning when they realised that the final questions were indeed the questions of the mock exam! The lazy students were indifferent either way, but would manage to pass because of the aforementioned threat of total disqualification.
The teacher of Commerce turned out to be an angry Economist from Cambridge! He showed little interest in commercial matters and preferred to explain key concepts via Economics and Econometrics, while remaining profoundly critical of both. God knows that between him, the teacher of Statistics, who was critical of Mathematics as a rival science, and the teacher of commercial Law, Mr. Hungerford, one started missing the French teacher for some peace and tranquillity, or the fussy Mrs. Maggie of the English suburbs. The Economist (whose name has been frozen out in memories of anger) commuted between the two cities on an almost daily basis with a small backpack full of books and items of clothing, presumably to change as and when the heat had become unbearable. He was an excellent Economist but had never managed to find a permanent job in the glorious city of Cambridge, where had actually lived all his life.
Mr. Hungerford was another key and permanent feature for the next couple of years: An excellent professional lawyer who had, nonetheless, ended up at a mere college of further education. He was extremely thoughtful, considered every detail appropriately and used them to challenge us with his own uncertainties regarding the law. What he did manage to do plausibly was pose targeted questions at his audience. This particular mock examination contained not just “culturally relevant” contemplations but also commercially based future exchanges relevant to the future as he might have seen it. Typical areas for investigation were events such as who, in the eyes of the Law, would ultimately be responsible for “a car stolen from a young and reckless driver from Hong Kong, should the thieves have a near-fatal accident with an innocent pedestrian; how would a Nigerian prince deal with a stolen gold necklace offered to a girl he had met in London should his mother disagree with his choice or, indeed, his chosen future bride to refuse the proposal. Bear in mind that the necklace belonged to the Family. Should he settle the matter in an open courthouse in London, or internally within the family?”; “Who was ultimately responsible for expenses claimed from insurance regarding a small tear in a valuable Persian rug, if the rug had been used in rented accommodation with the permission of the owner but not professionally cleaned after the expiry of the rental contract?”; or “Who would be responsible for a potential terrorist attack on the Chinese take away nearby?” You can see from the list of a few questions posed by Mr. Hungerford that he really was hungry for challenges of the future. When one asked him once why this was the case, Mr. Hungerford sorrowfully explained that he was Irish, and brought up by a family who had themselves experienced much sacrifice to ensure that he would get a decent education in England. One wondered if his thoughtful pauses had something to do with his revisiting old memories of home but was greatly encouraged by scoring the highest mark in Law as well as English in the end, and that was more than adequate for harder challenges one would face as an Economist a few months later for endless other years ahead.
The other intriguing character was the teacher of Accountancy who was always calm and collected. Clearly, without knowing the very basics of simple accounting procedures, such as book keeping, debit and credit transactions and double counting, tax payments and how to avoid costly wilful or innocent mistakes, one would be totally lost in any future. His last piece of advice to us all was this: “If you are rich enough in the future, make sure you pay an accountant to do the boring bits for you, and if you are not, make sure you always consult your current notebook for the rest of your life!” Asked if he still practised accountancy himself, he answered: “Of course not! I’ve got my youngest son to do it for my special clients in his free evenings. All I do now is sign the final annual tax returns. I mostly teach now. It is less boring.”
Years later, some correspondence arrives in the post, all written in excellent English. The soul of some correspondence does not authentically reflect the language of Empire yet yearns to come back to it to visit missed friends in London, while obliged to look after sick and aging family back home. Even more tragically, the one love they had originally left behind had already disappeared in strange ways.
Extracts from this correspondence, hand written between 1979-1980, are mentioned here with sincere gratitude for her encouraging words, her genuine love and trust and the eternal memories she has left me with. I hope that I have left her with the same feelings and memories. More importantly, I hope that wherever she may now be, she has found all the happiness she deserved as one of the most astonishing young women I have ever met, despite our utterly different backgrounds. The safest place on earth is in the heart of a true friend with whom Oneness can be reached amidst Otherness. In her letters, Aliye talks about a mountain of obstacles she has had to climb to find a job that involves her using her undoubtedly excellent English, acquired in the short period of training and an equally short period of staying in London to help her family’s small clothing factory with the actual production of garments used or sold on a wholesale basis locally or exported globally all labelled “Made in the UK”.
“My dearest Helen, I am now back in Cyprus… I do miss you a lot. I just can’t explain how I feel over here. I really feel very lonely as all my friends are in different towns. I have no one to talk to, no one to feel close to. I wish you were here… Anyway, I’ve been working for eight hours a day now. I work as a secretary. The office belongs to the State. The thing I do is just typing. It’s nothing to do with English.
The trouble is that it’s very far and I have to get up at five o’clock in the morning. I change two buses to get there… My father has not changed much but he looks older. Well, I know he is old, but he looks older than he is. I expected it after all they had been through.
I did see Ali at a mutual friend’s wedding from high school. Many of my friends were there. They all said I had changed a lot and if they saw me in the street they wouldn’t recognise me. Ali was there with his mum and dad. We didn’t talk – well, we couldn’t. I don’t really know if he recognised me, but he kept looking…”
The English teacher’s letter, delivered in the same period, uses equally affectionate terms: “My dear Helen, I am sorry that you do not sound altogether enthusiastic about your university course. But I think in the first term there are bound to be the problems of adjusting to a new environment… Your success is due almost entirely [!] to your own determination and hard work to succeed. You should be held up as a shining example to students who come here and have to start by mastering the language. I am well, I am glad to say – my leg has quite healed, although there is a big scar and it hurts sometimes – but I suppose, as my husband keeps saying I was lucky it was not my head!”
As for me, it is sufficient to point the following passages from the introduction and the conclusion of my final year thesis, for which she granted me a Distinction:
“THE FORGOTTEN CIVILISATION OF ASSYRIA”: O.N.D. BUSINESS STUDIES. (Year II/1979).
The story of Mesopotamia goes back to a time a little over 5000 years ago. Its ancient history is usually associated with the two distinct areas from which political leadership stemmed; Babylonia and Assyria… Each of the two provinces had its own character. Babylonia was a flat brown desert, formed from the mud-deposits brought down by its rivers in their course from the northern mountains towards the Persian Gulf. Assyria was, by contrast, an area of low hills, of much greater geological age than Babylonia – rich in oil deposits and dependent on winter rains…
It might interest the reader to know that the Assyrian nation was never totally demolished. There is no accurate estimate of the number of Assyrians left, but the figure lies somewhere between two and five million. The remaining Assyrians are Christians and have taken residence in different parts of the world. They still use the names Assur, Esarhaddon and Tiglath, and write in a language very similar to that of the neo-Assyrians.”
As to why the word “platitude” is used here and how one’s identity became an exotic commodity, it is all to do with Mrs. Margrett asking for an alternative to the phrase “common sense”! No prizes for guessing who could offer the alternative “platitude”. While English does remain the language of Globalisation and will soon be the key language of the whole world, one can only hope that while all scars are permanently healed for all human beings, one’s greater sympathies must lie with the “children of the Empire” to whom all citizens should remain eternally grateful. For then and for now, as they do not belong to empires anywhere. On English, one cannot be more grateful to a language so vast in scope and soulful in so many ways, particularly if mastered as a language that has always divided as well as united people, and is destined to carry an even heavier burden.