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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Belgian Youth Abroad

Tasker Dunham has a narrow escape when Hugo visits Yorkshire

Hugo, my foreign exchange partner, liked to think of himself as the Belgian equivalent of Dick Rivers, the French Elvis Presley. He sang like Dick Rivers, dressed like Dick Rivers and combed his hair like Dick Rivers. Like his role model, he was fascinated by popular American culture. I suspect this was the main reason he wanted to visit England – he thought it was like America. We spoke the same language, English fashion and music were taking over the world, and ‘swinging’ London was the fictional home of Hugo’s other role model, ‘The Saint’, alias “the famous Simon Templar”, played by the debonair Roger Moore, recently syndicated with subtitles on Belgian television. England was much easier to visit than America, and affordable too. The foreign exchange scheme, ‘La Jeunesse Belge à l'Étranger’ (Belgian Youth Abroad), paired up Belgian and English teenagers wanting to visit each others’ countries to stay with each others’ families.

And so, one sunny July afternoon in the early nineteen sixties, Hugo and around thirty other excited Belgian teenagers were on a train travelling north into Yorkshire. As they rattled across the twin bridges over the river and the canal, those who had been in previous years knew they were very near their destination. Meanwhile, waiting expectantly on the station platform, their exchange partners squinted into the glare along the railway line trying to catch a first glimpse of the approaching train. We knew its arrival was imminent having heard the distinctive clatter and thump of the railway gates coming to rest against their stops in the road, and the clunk of signals bouncing into the clear position.

I had been quite apprehensive about Hugo’s visit. Despite having enjoyed my time with his family in Belgium, I was afraid he would find Yorkshire a disappointment. It wasn’t Elvis Presley who had recently performed in our town, or ‘The Saint’ they had filmed for international distribution, it was Wilfred Pickles and his show ‘Have A Go!’ for broadcast on the Light Programme, one of the most old-fashioned and parochially working-class shows on the wireless. I felt sure Hugo was going to be bored and had no idea how we were going to entertain him.

There were no obvious answers among my waiting school group. Nearly all were older; there was hardly anyone from my own cohort, and no one I knew well. From my own year I could see only Wendy Godley, but she hadn’t spoken to me since primary school, not that I talked to girls much anyway. 

The train drew up in a hiss of hot steam, a whiff of coal smoke and a turmoil of slamming doors, waving, cheek-kissing and excited foreign accents. I found Hugo and helped him carry his luggage to our house, oddly distracted by the image of Wendy Godley waiting quietly at the end of the platform with the sun shining through her dress. 

I need not have worried about Hugo’s visit. A big difference between our own trip abroad and Hugo’s to England was that we had been mostly on our own, staying with families all over French-speaking Belgium. Hugo lived near Charleroi and there was no one from home anywhere near me. In contrast, the Belgians came to England as a group of around thirty, all to our small Yorkshire town. At the same time we were hosts to a similar number of German exchange students. So we had thirty Belgian teenagers and thirty German teenagers, many for the first time away from their parents, all in effect on holiday together with their sixty English hosts. It should have been obvious there would be no difficulties in finding things for them to do, they would create their own entertainment. Indeed, Hugo had already been hard at work creating distractions of his own.

“Dzehre was dzees gehrl on dzee trhrain,” he said in his Belgian accent. “Marie-Christine. Vehry byutifurl. She stay ‘ere en England too. She ees frhrom Dinant, but she stay ‘ere weedz an Engleesh gehrl called Wendee. You know whehre she leev?”

That single conversation disclosed Hugo’s main preoccupation for the next two and a half weeks. Whereas in Belgium my activities had depended almost entirely on Hugo and his family, Hugo quickly started to organise things in England for himself. As such a handsome, energetic combination of Dick Rivers and the famous Simon Templar, he was bound to be irresistible to the Belgian girls, the German girls, their English hosts, and all their friends and sisters too. He worked his way through them one by one, sometimes in twos and threes, greatly assisted by the use of my dad’s ancient bicycle which he had commandeered to give himself a level of independence that frequently left me to my own devices. I had never known anyone so unexpectedly overflowing with such extrovert self-confidence; it had certainly not been evident in Belgium, within sight of his parents.“Hugo est un garçon sérieux,” (Hugo is a serious boy) one of his friends had told me.

Most afternoons for two and a half weeks, groups of Belgian and German teenagers, usually but not always with their English hosts, congregated in the park, played tennis or football, wandered around town, visited each others’ houses or drank Coca Cola in coffee bars. Most evenings there were lively parties, a couple of which got seriously out of hand leaving legendary tales of high-spirited behaviour and worse. As Hugo was my ‘wog’, which I am sorry to say is how in those politically incorrect days we referred to our overseas exchange visitors, I got to participate too. Such an intensity of social activity was completely new to me. I had to learn quickly.

One afternoon, Hugo having gone off somewhere with Wendy Godley and Marie-Christine, I found myself on my own in the park with Wendy’s sister, Sandra Godley, who was also ‘vehry byutifurl’, as Hugo put it. While Wendy continued to ignore me, Sandra was completely the opposite. She was always asking me things – things that seemed to mean much more than just the words she used – such as whether I might be going to the pictures. Did I think it cosy at the Carlton? Would I like a ‘Wonderful Life’? Had I thought about ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Would I enjoy ‘Sex and the Single Girl’? She seemed for ever to be touching me, walking near enough to bump arms, brushing her hand against mine, sitting a bit too close so our knees came into contact.

That day in the park, I was sitting on my bicycle, hands on the brakes, and Sandra stood so closely that, oh so casually and accidentally, her tummy pressed firmly against my fingers. She felt warm through the softness of her strikingly red top. Then, with mischievous blue eyes looking straight into mine in a way that was impossible to refuse, she asked whether she could have a ride, pausing excessively before adding “on your bike, I mean.” I got off, she got on, wobbled a bit because it was too big for her, and then rode off towards the park exit, her ample bottom astride my saddle. I followed on foot, but she had disappeared. To be truthful, I was rather annoyed. If I wanted my bike back, I had to go get it.

I walked the half-mile or so to the Godleys’ house wondering what to say. The front door opened and Sandra waved me inside. She was alone in the house, and had changed out of her red top into what looked to me like a flimsy nightdress. It was hard to know where to look. Even someone as unworldly as me could not fail to gather what she had in mind.

Then, in one of those instants when had I decided to act otherwise the rest of my life could have taken a very different course, I did what newspaper reporters used to say they did after uncovering some lair of wickedness, I made my excuses and left. Actually, ‘made my excuses and fled’ would be more accurate.

There were times during the next few weeks when I wondered how things might have turned out otherwise. It would have been good for me at that stage of my life to have had a very special friend, especially someone so funny and so lovely and so ‘vehry byutifurl’. My brusque behaviour and ensuing coldness must have been hurtful. But this wasn’t ‘swinging’ London – the ‘swinging sixties’ did not reach our part of Yorkshire until at least the nineteen seventies, maybe not even then. We would have become the subjects of the kind of nudges, winks and whispers that circulated round the town for weeks. Out of consideration and loyalty it would have been impossible to pretend nothing had happened.

If these thoughts went through my mind at the time, there was one other thing too. It sounds so terribly arrogant today, in fact it’s shameful, but it illustrates how the tripartite education system, with selection at eleven, divisively changed us. Sandra went to the modern school. Grammar school boys did not go out with modern school girls, not unless they were desperate. Somehow, subconsciously, insidiously, we were turned into pompous snobs, led to think we were better. While modern school boys wanted to beat grammar school boys up, with some justification, modern school girls wanted to catch one. 

I kept quiet about what had happened, but one thing I know for certain. It was a better offer than Dick Rivers had all summer. Girls might have found him attractive and entertaining, but they never tried to pinch my dad’s bike from him.

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