Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Week in Paris, Easter 1951 by Jon Wonham

Paris Skyline & Eiffel Tower
Originally uploaded by greenmelinda.

In 1951, I was twelve years old. My father was manager of a small farm on the Surrey-Hampshire border and I travelled to school by bus every day. I attended Farnham Grammar School, having won a scholarship which allowed me to go there, rather than the local school. It was a boys school, founded in 1351, whose doors had been opened to non-fee payers by the 1945 Education Act.

Looking back to the decade in Britain immediately following World War II, with its austerity and rationing, it is perhaps surprising that I was able to join a school trip to Paris, or even that my parents thought it was a good idea. It must have signalled their belief that travel would further their worldly ambitions for me. The previous summer they had arranged for me, at the age of 11 years, to accompany my Danish aunt on a visit home. She had taken me across Denmark by train and over the Baltic to Sweden. My parents must have been excited by the new horizons travel opened up, and when there was a chance for me to join a trip to Paris they embraced it.

The trip was organised by two young staff members; Alan Fluck, the Music Master and Mike Foster an English Master. Mr Foster had won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a Lancaster bomber pilot during World War II. He brought his young wife on the trip. Mr. Fluck, a bachelor, was a brilliant and well-connected music teacher, who built up the school's choir and orchestra and put on a first-night performance of a Benjamin Britton operetta, at the school, in the presence of the composer. He was first cousin to the film actress Diana Dors, who was born Diana Fluck. One of his Farnham pupils, Jeffrey Tate, is now a world famous conductor. The trip was as much an opportunity for this "trio" to enjoy themselves in Paris as to educate their young charges!

We crossed the Channel from Newhaven to Dieppe, and then by train to Paris. Our accommodation was on the third floor of a traditional four storey building near the Palais-Royal. There were about 16 pupils and we sat four to a table for meals. Our days were brilliantly organised to witness everything the "trio" wanted to see. The April weather was incredibly warm and sunny, and Paris offered boundless sites of interest. To mention a few of the places: we climbed the Eiffel Tower, saw Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides, were overawed by Notre-Dame Cathedral and walked the embankment and bridges of the Seine.

We got around Paris on the Metro. We bought 10 ticket cahiers and popped-up above ground at requisite moments. One of these visits, I recall, was to the Musée de L'Homme, in a spectacular semi-circular and much porticoed building just north of the Eiffel Tower, one half of which was NATO HQ, the other half the anthropological museum. The models and photos of naked natives were an eye-opener to us school boys.

Another visit, even more memorable, was to the church of Saint-Sulpice, near to the Luxembourg Gardens, on the morning of Easter Day. Our music master knew that one of the world's most accomplished and famous organists, Marcel Dupré, would be playing the organ on that day. Dupré's "voluntary" at the end of the service, which filled that magnificent space with breathtaking sound, was something never to be forgotten.

Thinking back, what astonishes me now is the freedom we twelve year olds were given to roam Paris at will during our free time. Myself and a class-mate, David Grey, wandered widely around Paris unsupervised in the evenings. I can recall the glitter of the Champs-Élysées with expensive limousines delivering fashionable clientele to restaurants and night-clubs. It seemed so exciting and glamorous. In contrast, Paris was filled with displaced and homeless persons, remnants of the terrible upheavals of the World War II, who were ever present, and subject to our constant curiosity on these wild excursions. The sight of a vagrant eating newly caught raw fish from the Seine, washed down with cheap wine from an enormous bottle, was a novelty for us. Shamelessly and thoughtlessly we threw uneaten bread rolls and water from the windows of our lodgings on to the homeless persons sleeping on metro ventilation grids in the pavement below, causing much agitation.

At evening meals, each of us was given a small carafe of red table wine. The "trio" imposed a restriction of one carafe between the four pupils on each table. Myself and David Grey decided to break the restriction, and by the end of a meal had consumed all of the wine on our table and about another six carafes from other tables. We were quite squiffy. This was discovered by the "trio" and we were gated, but surprisingly not severely reprimanded. The "trio", in fact, soon absented themselves for a night on the town while we played table tennis, badly.

Three years later, I visited Brussels and Bruges on a Vth form trip. Looking back, this early travel presaged the wider travel I later undertook during my career in the UN system. I am sure that my early experiences gave me confidence when visiting remote areas of the world . In 1950s Britain, very few people travelled at home, let alone overseas.

For an epitaph to this tale, I am reminded of the memorial service in Farnham Castle I attended a few years back for Leonard Evans, the Chemistry Master at my old school who had died aged 92. At the end I turned to chat to the lady sitting on my right. On enquiring, she said she was the widow of Mr. Foster. She vividly remembered the Paris trip she had undertaken in her twenties. Alan Fluck, apparently, had attempted to inveigle them from one musical event to another. It was, unsurprisingly, as much a happy memory for her as it was for me. A wonderful break from the uncompromising gloom of post World War II Britain.

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Jon Wonham is a retired Professor of International Transport who lives in Stroud, England. He divides his time between working for various voluntary organisations, reading and travelling.


Lucy said...

Thanks Jon, I enjoyed that very much.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Jon. My first visit to Paris was at around the same time. You have a year or two on me so the nature of my experience was somewhat different from yours, but I was no less entranced.

I wonder in which bit of the Surrey/Hants border you lived. I taught at Frensham Heights School & lived in Rowledge between 1975 & 1992. My ex-wife still teaches at the Heights & lives in the house we bought when we moved.

Anonymous said...

(Jon says:) Hello Dick,

I lived at Churt. The county border, Barford stream, ran through the farm. My house was on the Hampshire side but Churchers College, Petersfield was inaccessible. The stream runs into Frensham pond, where I frequently skated, swam and viewed the wildlife.

The widower of my cousin, Sheila, Maj. Bob Cowan - married Seaneen(?), daughter of the Headteacher of Frensham Heights School.

Thanks for your comments.


Joe Milutis said...

squiffy! funny word.

Anonymous said...

I was space hopping and hopped into your page.
Your memories and account of your trip to Paris left me breathless.
What a wonderful memory palace you have!
Thank you so so much for sharing.
I have always hoped to visit Paris,
after reading this,
I can't wait to go.
Thanks again and much love