Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
so, all of us little teachers were brought in to teach the English
train drivers how to speak French. Over dinner last week, Dounia
Bissar, now a French lecturer at the University of Essex, was telling
us a story. Dounia, a Belgian, resident here for many years, recalls
that it wasn't an easy task, but that the train drivers were nice
and very humorous.
were given the job of bringing big tough English train drivers up to
fluency in French from scratch? I asked. She nodded.
course was planned over 18 months, she recalled and the teachers
were each assigned groups of twelve drivers. It would have been tough
job, I reflected. As George Orwell wrote in his 1940 essay, England
the English are not generally much good at speaking foreign
languages. Many of us still think of it as vaguely suspicious,
almost effete, to do anything other than speak a foreign language as
ineptly as possible.
For the would-be Eurostar
drivers, however, there was no alternative but to learn French. The
imperative here, after all, was one of safety.
Thus, in the early 1990s,
a small battalion of teachers like Dounia and her colleagues were
wheeled in to accomplish this formidable task.
it work? I asked. Oh yes. she replied.
best students took about a year, others took longer, having to repeat
one, it turns out, gave up, but a few failed the course. The
course started with an initial training period of 3 weeks 2 weeks
intensive in London and then a week in Lille, followed by a period
staying with French families.
training courses, for train drivers and managers, started in 1991 and
lasted, Dounia now thinks, for up to a decade. Eventually, Eurostar
developed their own in-house language training programme. This was
cheaper, as there was a continuous need for it: The
training took place at then North London University and at Eurostar
itself, in a simulated driving cabin, where the drivers would listen
to instructions in French, e.g. from signalmen, firefighters, police,
etc. She adds: I learnt a lot about trains. I always loved
trains and I used to know an extensive technical vocabulary, but I've
forgotten most of it. All in all, it was a great experience!
listened, semi-awed to Dounia's account. Dark and gamine, now of a
certain age, I tried to imagine her nearly a quarter-century
earlier, in her less-certain twenties, perhaps with a slightly
stronger French accent, having to tame a gang of our cheeky railway
was also very interested in Dounia's account, however, because I was
one of the first-ever Eurostar passengers. The service opened on
Monday 14th November 1994 and only three days later, I was on a
morning train out of Waterloo. It was pure luck, really. I'd been
booked to play Paris that week and Louis, a French singer and friend
of mine, who'd been involved with an Anglo-French BBC broadcast for
the launch day, was given some discounted tickets.
it was announced that the musicians would be travelling by Eurostar,
you may imagine how excited your train-loving correspondent, Mr
Slightly Special here, felt. On the actual day of the trip, I
couldn't stay in my place and kept walking up and down the train,
which wasn't even particularly full.
whole concept, in fact, of being able to get on a train at Waterloo
and then, a mere three hours later, disembark at Gard du Nord, seemed
the Eighth Wonder of the World. I could now see no reason ever to
have to take an aeroplane again.
this year it was announced that we'd sold off the U.K.'s forty
percent share of Eurostar to a consortium. Why? Who knows? At
£757.1million, it made the government a rather bigger profit than
had been expected. For me, it still wasn't enough. Perhaps, back in
1994, I was so impressed by Eurostar because, it had been the
breeziest trip of that year. By November 1994, I'd had quite enough
of foreign travel. I'd flown to France in January. Then, in June
there'd been a long haul to Tokyo. In July and August I schlepped
over to Iceland and back. Then, in early September I returned to
Japan again for a few concerts. Does it sound like fun? It wasn't. I
don't like air travel. It makes me ill and it scrambles me. I try to
avoid it altogether nowadays.
do not know exactly when it was that the famously-insular British
became so accustomed to overseas travel. Maybe it was during the
1980s. Once upon a time, most of us simply took a fortnight's holiday
in Blackpool or Colwyn Bay, remaining resolutely ignorant of our
own country, let alone the rest of of the world. Nowadays, my
countrymen routinely go snowboarding in Bulgaria, or buy time-share
apartments in Phuket, Thailand. And yet we still cannot say which
city the River Wensum runs through, or in certain cases, even where
East Anglia is. The accessibility of foreigh travel seems more to
have increased our ignorance of the world, rather than decreased it.
Two decades after Eurostar first ran, almost a quarter of a century
after Dounia Bissar and her colleagues began teaching our train
drivers to speak French, are we British really any more cosmopolitan
than we ever were? Rιponses
sur une carte postale s'il vous plaξt.