Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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