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A Shout From The Attic: Night School

...The elocution was a different matter, and they had to break my jaw, move my epiglottis, and do something inside my brain with a brass stair rod wired up to a toaster socket before I could form vowels unlike those they do in Yorkshire...

Thirsting for education, Ronnie Bray enrolled in night classes to study elocution and Spanish.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's entertaining autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

Sudbury was a few miles down the road from Derby, the city of my maternal grandfather, Harold Bennett. However that had nothing to do with my decision to enrol in night classes at Derby Technical College. Perhaps I was just being pretentious, but I craved an education, having finally discovered why I had been at school twelve months after I had left school. I signed up for Spanish Language and Elocution.

The Spanish went reasonably well, apart from it being a foreign language. That did not come as a complete surprise to me, as I had been introduced to some of its rudiments by James Leroy Kimball an American missionary I had known in Huddersfield.

The elocution was a different matter, and they had to break my jaw, move my epiglottis, and do something inside my brain with a brass stair rod wired up to a toaster socket before I could form vowels unlike those they do in Yorkshire.

Attending there two evenings a week, led me to discover a great set of people who were my fellow students. It could have been common goals in language and its expressions that encouraged us to form a friendly covenant of kindred souls in common enterprises. Whatever its cause, I found the learning community particularly enjoyable, and kind towards each other’s aspirations.

Whatever scant Spanish I learned in late 1953, I still retain. I try to find ways of introducing it into everyday conversation, but such phrases as “El casa del Pablo no es muy grande,” has limited application, because I do not know anyone called Pablo, and the chances are that if I were to meet a Pablo – a highly likely eventuality in Arizona – he will probably have a house that is muy grande, and my education will be wasted.

Whenever I have an egg meal, I linger over it in the hopes that someone will lay claim to it, and then I can draw myself up to my full height of six feet seven inches (I tell lies too!) and pronounce in my best Castillian, “El huevo es mío!” So far, no one seems to want to fight me for my egg. Another disappointment! I could if pressed languidly observe that “En la calle los automóviles pasan todo el dia,” but stating the obvious is unlikely to get one well thought of, and so would be self defeating. But – I tell myself – one day …

Elocution proved a greater boon that the language of Iberian Peninsula and afforded me ingress to discourses carried on in a variety of English dialects and accents, but, more importantly, allowed others to understand me. I was almost eighteen before I began to say “yes,” having adopted “aye” as my standard form of the affirmative. It is yet current in that reflex of heaven affectionately known as the County of the Broad Acres, best tripe, Pork Pies, and consummate cricketers.

Naturally, I was accused of “talking posh” by the de rigeur reverse snobbery of my working class family and friends, but I avoided that by switching dialect from received English as spoke by the Royal family, that is until Princess Anne got mixed up with Yorkshireman Harvey Smith and adopted his excellent Yorkshire vowels, such as the Queen calls “Rorther Squorshed,” and back again as the occasion demanded.

I became proficient in the speech of the Highlands, although admitting my shortcomings with the Island Gaelic, but could pass for a Brummy, a Lancastrian, a Welshman from the north, south, or west, and only my Bailfast Irish accent exceeded my Dublin one. One moment I could be a Cockney counting the fevvers on a frush’s froat, yet in an instance I could become a visitor from France, Germany, Russia, or the Balkan. Arabs, Indians – Eastern and Western – were in my repertoire, and my Pidgin Inglis “Em stap gutpela, mi laikim, mi lainimtumas,” was equal to my grasp of other parleyings, so that wherever I was in the world, if someone was speaking any form of English with any kind of accent, I was at once at one with them. “Ya masta Bos! Dispela stretpela.” Unfortunately, Derby and Sudbury afforded little opportunity to converse with Papuans.

For the second elocution lesson, our teacher, who was, incidentally, “muy simpatico,” required that each of the class commit to memory a poem. I selected Shelley’s “Ozymandias of Egypt,” little thinking that in another year I would actually be in Ægypt and would get to meet Ozymandias and buy a cheap watch from him. It’s a small world, as they say.

Some will remember times in their lives when they came to realise something that made them shift direction. My initial meeting with Ozzy – as he asked me to call him – was one of these. In the day when he was not only a king, but claimed to be a King among Kings, he has a mammoth-sized statue made of himself as if stood surveying his palaces and treasure houses, with inscriptions on its base recounting his heroic deeds, conquerings, and largesse, all of which has imprinted his character and memory in the minds of his people and on those he had vanquished.

It was from the braggart-king that I learned that time would change most things, and what today seemed permanent, tomorrow could turn to dust and ashes and be as sterile as the sand that enshrouded the shattered likeness of the once mighty monarch, and his fame and his hope for the future with it.

He who had proclaimed, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was now alone, the sole occupier of the desolate desert grave in the place that was once the crown of his empire. The image came back to haunt me in later years when that which I had assayed would last forever, broke like an archaic brittle statue, and crumbed into the dust where like the remains of Ozymandias’ statue it remains to this day, unredeemable, as if it belonged to an antique time, inhabited by people who are not us.

Nothing beside remains round the decay of that colossal wreck. Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

The elocution program was helpful, but less so than the interaction with people from various corners of the British Isles, who dispensed their local terms, dialects, cultures, and customs unconsciously and imperceptibly. In Ægypt and in Cyprus, we met and befriended West Africans, Norselanders, Kenyans, South Africans of all hues, Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Germans, Armenians, French, and ex-patriot English who lived in ‘Little Englands’ and had more patriotic fervour than they ever summoned when they dwelt in the Old Country.

Each had their story to tell, and in the telling each shared his life with the honesty of men who know they will die in the morning. As they yielded their heart’s store, each passed some of the stuff of his essential being into the vessel from which we all drank. We were changed forever by infusions of things hidden that were made known, and things we had never imagined could be but were, and it came to pass that the muted pride we felt at the enlargement of our understanding was gently pared by the refinement and cleansing when we were led to recognise that we did not know others only because we failed to look on them.

No one walks away from these experiences unchanged by the majestic truth that flesh and blood make durable impressions that transform the directions of our lives, and are more potent dissipaters of ignorance and intolerance than whatever power lies behind figures of stone and those in whose image they are fashioned. Those who share the disposition of Ozymandias have neither the competence to transform lives or power in any endeavour when we have exposed their perfidy and our terror has evaporated.

Thus it was that two quaint and unrelated assignations met in my life, each in its way exceptionally nourishing. One led me towards people, and the other took me inside them. These were not the last lessons of a tormented life. They were among the earliest. The fullness of their anointing was not revealed until I was compelled to journey to the core of my being and savour the essence of my spirit stripped bare of pretension when I had lost all a man could lose and not slip into the grave and was constrained to see who I was after years of self-condemnation that was the echo of the opprobrium of those who once had loved me, but whose need was for a knave as a contrast to display their darkness as if it was light.

My ascent from the Stygian gloom of the abyss into the light was hard, but the shedding of unnecessary encumbrances made it easier than if the beatific vision had been denied. The catharsis refined, cleansed, and reformed my spirit, repaired my wounded self-esteem, and fitted me for life. Since that resurrection, although I have not always walked in smooth paths, I have walked towards the light, my burdens have diminished, and I have found a voice that speaks true, and have been blessed to see beyond designs held before faces to influence our perception of whatever it is that is actually before our eyes.

It has been a long and arduous pilgrimage, and the cost was flagitious. Yet, the lesson of Ozymandias distilled into my soul and provided the impetus necessary to boldly look behind masks, steeled my courage to question judgements, mine as well as other’s, because they are not always what they are made out to be. If it were needed, to drive the lesson home, the watch –which, like life and love, wasn’t guaranteed – stopped after two days!

Ah, Ozymandias, effendi, what lessons we have to teach each other, eh?

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