This article is submitted on Lorna’s behalf and with her permission, by Chris Hepden, HS 1957-64. If anyone wishes to contact Lorna they can email her as Lorna Joy, (was Bain) via firstname.lastname@example.org, who will forward the mail to her.
Learning Languages at Hatfield School not only shaped my future career, it has made me the very person I am, in terms of outlook, values and beliefs. Thanks to its philosophy of allowing everyone to excel at what they were good at, Hatfield School allowed me to do 3 languages at ‘O’ level (German, French and Russian), 2 at ‘A’ level (German and Russian), plus an additional language in the 6th form (Spanish). I don’t tell you this to boast (I don’t disclose my grades!), but to illustrate the incredible breadth of opportunity afforded to someone such as myself from a very modest background.
My love of language came perhaps from my mother’s recitations in Scottish dialect with which she would regale us throughout our childhood. But I remember being excited that while most of my friends from junior school would be learning French, my new school would be teaching us German as first foreign language, and imagine my delight when I discovered that, due to the Scottish influence, the pronunciation was not altogether foreign to me! I was in 1D (Darwin), and our first German teacher was Mr Pidcock. I remember him spending a long time teaching us how to pronounce the vowels (I have used the same technique many times when teaching both German and Russian). In general, I didn’t find it hard, and I was very enthusiastic. In the second year we had Mr Hickson, in the third it was Mr Bristow, who, I remember, set the prepositions to music as a way of remembering which took the dative case and which the accusative.(I still sometimes sing it in my head if I need to check!)
From the 4th year a new teacher came to the school, Dr. Frankl, a German speaker originally from Czechoslovakia, who would teach us until the end of A level. He stayed at Hatfield School almost until it closed, and I kept in touch with him until he died, aged 91, in 2005. It was only in 1994 that I discovered that most of his family had perished in the Holocaust. Even in the 1990s I used to write to him in German, and he would still send me the corrections!!!
The Bielefeld Exchange
However, the event which set my life on its future path, occurred near the beginning of the second year, when I saw a large poster on the wall above the stairs near the Assembly Hall. It was hand drawn by Mr Hickson (badly drawn, but it attracted attention!) stating that for £4:4 shillings, plus 1 shilling for the collective passport, you could take part in the school exchange to Bielefeld. In a family with 6 children, my parents could not generally afford school trips, but to my delight it was decided that it was not too expensive for me to go. And so it was that on 2nd April 1965, aged just 13 and only really able to speak German in the present tense, I set off into the unknown, having never travelled outside the UK before.
I remember spending all my time watching out of the train window, standing for hours in the corridor, where you could almost see into people’s houses, thinking to myself: “just imagine, that family is having their lunch and talking in another language that I can’t understand!” This thought would fascinate me for years! The whole journey took 15 and a half hours from Victoria (although I had risen at sunrise to be able to walk to Hatfield station and be in London early), and we arrived in Bielefeld shortly before 1 a.m. to be met by our exchange families. We had only exchanged 2 letters and a photograph. They lived 10 km outside Bielefeld in a village, so it was a long, dark drive until we arrived at the house that I would later come to know so well. But on my first night, my first problem was the bed: I was so tired, but was faced with what looked like a large white mering
ue made out of bedsheet material (in those days an English bed was a sheet, a blanket and a counterpane, no-one had heard of duvets!), and I was unsure how to get into what I later learned was a traditional German feather bed. Luckily my friend saw my consternation and pulled the cover back for me to get in. And this was my first lesson in the ‘otherness’ of different cultures.
But unlike many people I have come across over the years who tend to view this otherness with suspicion, I couldn’t get enough of it, I wanted to know it all and understand it: the food; the customs; the traditions. And this attitude to other cultures has stayed with me ever since. In terms of value for money, the trip was tremendous. We were there for 3 whole weeks! My friend then came to Hatfield in the July, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And 55 years later we are still friends. I took part in 2 more exchanges in 1967 and 1969 to the same family, and thereafter I went under my own steam. I studied German at University, including a term at a German University in
Marburg, worked in factories there and at beer festivals, then returned to Bielefeld as an assisant teacher in 1972.
Needless to say, I eventually became completely fluent in German, became a translator, plying my trade for 40
years, the last 20 of which I worked for the UK branch of a German company, Schüco International, which, coincidentally, had its headquarters in…. you’ve guessed it ….. Bielefeld!
At Hatfield School in the 1960s, if you were good at German, you were encouraged to learn Russian from the third year, so taking it to ’A’ level meant 5 years of Russian, virtually unheard of in any other school (state or private). There was a whole class who took ‘O’ level, of which at least 10 of us passed. We first had Mr. Kilby who occasionally disappeared to be an interpreter on Russian cruise ships docked in London. After one such trip, he asked if any of us would like penfriends in the Soviet Union. And so from the ages of 14 to 18, I had a penfriend, a boy who lived, it later transpired, in a town which was closed to foreigners! It stopped when I received an empty envelope, and then nothing until 1989, when I received a letter from him. I was finally able to visit the town of Obninsk, and meet him in 1992, just after the Soviet Union ended. In the 5th year, Mr Pidcock took over teaching us and told us we were not as advanced as we should be, so he made us learn whole chunks of Russian by heart, which actually stood us in good stead. We also used the brand new language laboratory equipment for a recorded Russian course from Pergamon Press. I think we were one of the first schools to use it. And we were encouraged to listen to the first Russian course put out by the BBC, as a result of which, most of my siblings still know random phrases in Russian, as they all had to listen in to our one and only Radio Rentals radio. We also read little ‘samizdat’ books and progressed to Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, which, I subsequently realised, was quite advanced for a school text. This was in preparation for the texts at A level: The Queen of Spades by Pushkin; First Love by Turgenev; Uncle Vanya by Chekov; and The Chinese Vase and other stories. Through the books, Mr Pidcock also taught us a good deal about Russian history and culture, including the Russian Revolution and the Russians during the Second World War. So we learnt more than just the language. We went to see Uncle Vanya at the theatre in London, and also an interesting play about Stalingrad by a visiting theatre company at the College next door. This depth of enrichment was quite remarkable for a state school.
After my German degree, I took a course in Translation and was able to offer Russian as my secondary language. I became a translator of both Russian and German and later took a Masters in Russian and East European Studies. I still run a U3A Russian group, and in 2012 fulfilled my lifelong ambition of travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, inspired originally by the description of train travel in the “Second Year Russian Book” we used in the 5th year. Though not as fluent as my German, I can still hold my own, and (thank you, Mr. Pidcock!) am often praised for my Russian pronunciation.
Now French to this day is my weakest language, but this is probably my own fault, as I couldn’t raise the same enthusiasm for French. Many others in my year went on to do ‘A’ Level French, and would no doubt have more to report. We started with Mr Sircom, who made us repeat and repeat “on” sounds, because apparently we weren’t nasal enough. I also hated doing dictation as the spelling could only be guessed at, whereas in German, you just wrote what you heard. We then had 2 teachers from New Zealand, and we rather took advantage of their good nature and messed about. I did pass my ‘O’ level, much to my own surprise. I have had various chances to improve my French over the years and have used it on many occasions, but a few years ago, when I decided to go to a U3A Conference in France which would be mostly in French, I decided to brush up by attending a weekend course in Oxford, and although it was challenging, I was astonished to find, I could still recognise the difference between the imperfect and the past historic after 50 years! Proving that, once learned, the basics from school provided a firm foundation on which to build. I still love to go to France and like to chat in French to anyone who cares to talk to me.
This was offered as a sixth form option to take ‘O’ level in 2 years. I did so, although did no revising for the exam, so did not pass. It was a pity, as I liked the language, and actually studied it further in later years. We first had Mr. Morrison, who was a young teacher of Russian who taught us loads of grammar, then he went to work next door at the College, so we had Mrs Kramer, who was Austrian and extremely old. She was an excellent linguist who spoke good Spanish, but she could not hear very well. We could and should have put in more effort; such a waste! But again, the groundwork proved useful later. I can speak reasonable Spanish and look forward to using it in South America next year.
I did not do this, although Mr Pidcock frequently lamented our lack of Latin when he was trying to point out how to break long Russian words into their component parts, which generally corresponded to Latin roots in English. However, it was possible to choose Latin as an option, either from the 5th year, or in the sixth form. Others may be able to fill in the details here.
This was offered, although I did not do it. But in 1968, at least 1 person obtained ‘O’ level and 19 people got CSE Italian. Perhaps one of those people reading this might fill us in?
The scope of languages taught at Hatfield School was probably greater than at any other state or even private school. In 1964 there were 6 teachers who taught German, 2 of whom also taught French and Latin, and 2 others Russian, and one of them also Italian. In later years there may have been more. One part-time German teacher for some years was the famous actor Philip Madoc, who spoke excellent German. Without a doubt, it was the emphasis at Hatfield School on languages and their cultures that made me, in so many respects, the person I have become and continue to be!
Lorna Joy (was Bain) – February 2021
Lorna has also submitted Comments on other Posts:
‘Hatfield Secondary Technical School’ on 10/5/17 …..
‘Pioneering Computer Science Education’ also on 10/5/17
‘Remembering One TrackMac’ on 1/6/20.
Have you checked recently the other HS Pages/Posts listed and hotlinked in the list at the top right of this page ? The titles don’t say everything, and new edits and new Posts are being added often.