Live and learn with Leslie Geddesbrown
IWAS talking to a friend the other day whose great-aunt had been an old-style hospital matron. They’re now an endangered species, but anyone who saw Doctor in the House will remember Hattie Jacques as the archetypal matron—quivering bosom, piercing eyes and, of course, matron’s starched cap, which was a relic, I think, of Florence Nightingale.
The great-aunt’s regular starching reminded me of a weekly lesson we had at school called something like good housekeeping. In it, I learnt how to starch a doubledamask dinner napkin. It took about 1½ hours. A more useless skill would be hard to find: changing ugly napkins into swans for banquets. When we weren’t starching, we were a-smocking. I was given a miserable piece of cotton gingham to sew eight lines of smocking on. I never achieved a usable result, but what would have been the point anyway?
All this made me wonder what other idiotic things schools teach. My father-in-law, for example, had to learn the alphabet backwards. It could have been useful, I suppose, in cracking the Enigma code, but he was only eight. His son, a naval cadet, was taught how to sail a dinghy backwards. Another classic example came from the French translation my father-in-law was given: ‘Does your sister sing sweetly on Sundays? No, but the miller is ill.’ One of my own favourites is the Dutch sentence: ‘The submarine dived and disappeared under the waves.’
A male friend who runs Millgate House, a luxury B&B in North Yorkshire, was taught how to knit an egg cosy: ‘Needless to say, I’ve never made or used one since.’
How about my sister-in-law’s swimming lessons? ‘Good idea, you might think, but our school didn’t have a pool and no water was involved. Dressed in our regulation navy knickers, we lay prostrate across wooden forms and waggled our feet and arms about under the watchful eye of Dizzy the teacher as she yelled out instructions. No wonder I’m useless at swimming.’
For myself, the elastic legs of the navy knickers provided a helpful receptacle for the disgusting food we were supposed to eat. Staff must have wondered how the beetroot stains and salad cream got there. On the other hand, I must admit that school and college taught me useful things that I saw then as a complete waste of time. Latin is a prime example. It not only helps with complicated long words, but is also perfect for gardeners struggling with plant names. And, according to an old lady, Miss Pettigrew, ‘it gives one a certain outlook’.
A quick questionnaire among friends and relations produced polishing boots with a spoon and candle wax, learning to play the recorder that has no purpose except to make the neighbours wince and learning lacrosse. My sister-in-law writes: ‘I learnt how to run round a lacrosse pitch in freezing weather in a shirt and a short divided skirt waving a lacrosse stick to and fro to try to keep the ball in a shallow net before launching it off—it’s a small but very hard missile.’
I never learnt Greek, but my Scottish grandfather insisted on reading me stories from the Greek legends instead of fairy tales—strong stuff for a six year old, but Medusa is much more fun than Little Red Riding Hood. The obvious ‘useless’ skill from the 1970s was touch-typing. After all, everyone had dictaphones, but, today, every schoolchild should do a course in it.
What we all seem to be agreed upon is that geography has no discernible purpose in real life. I don’t care about the exports from the Amazon Basin or the fact that boots and shoes are made west (or was it east?) of ’s-hertogenbosch.
‘We lay across wooden forms and waggled our feet and arms