He was a bully, our History teacher; a sarcastic, nasty piece of work. If you were lucky, he’d throw chalk at you but he was just as likely to throw the blackboard rubber. “Do you need an extra chair?” he’d sneer at Michael, who was on the stout side. “Will you be in class tomorrow or are you taking the day off to celebrate Jewish Christmas?” he’d say to Rachel. And I probably didn’t see the worst of him; I suspect that was saved for when he took boys’ games.
It was very pleasing to hear that he’d had to spend a whole lunchtime and the following free period cleaning Cliff Richard’s car. Cliff came to talk to our Christian Union and some of the fourth year living dolls decided their time was better spent expressing messages of eternal love in lipstick on his Scimitar. A bugger to get off, I believe. Which is good.
My predominant memory of his actual lessons was listening to a long playing record of A.J.P. Taylor droning on about the first Word War or something similar, while our HistoryMan sat and smoked cigars. Ah, the rigours of a grammar school education! There was definitely some mention of Alsace-Lorraine but the whys and whats and wherefores had completely failed to lodge into my consciousness. But now I know.
Because yesterday, we explored Strasbourg with the help of a lovely lady in the Information Centre who lent us audio-guides, suggested museums and pointed us towards an excellent boat tour.
We tackled the audio guide first and it led us past the armed guards who were pacing around the cathedral square; through the centre of the city and around the picture-box, river-side area of Petite France, romantically named after the hospital which treated patients with syphilis, also known as “the French disease.”
A little further along from the hospital were buildings which housed the tanners, who softened leather with urine, dumping the waste into the river where it mixed with the blood from the neighbouring slaughterhouses.
From such a delightful start, the area has been transformed into a place of such beauty that it could have been constructed by Disney; when we went on the boat ride around the river in the evening, I fully expected to hear “it’s a small world after all” blaring from the headphones.
Strasbourg, I know now, is the most important city in the area of Alsace, which is a strip of land bordering the Rhine to the extreme east of France, or west of Germany, depending on when you are looking at it.
The city museum led us brilliantly through the vagaries and trials of the place, of which there have been many. Forgive me if this is your Mastermind specialist subject, but I’m going to share some of these.
Founded initially by the Romans in 12 BC, it was then taken over some five hundred years later by the marvellously named Clovis, King of the Franks, who gave it the name “Strateburgum” which meant “town of many roads.” Three hundred years later it was taken over by Louis the German to become part of the Holy Roman Empire. In sixteen something, after the thirty years’ war, it was claimed back by Louis XIV for the French. Two hundred years later, there was a siege and it became German again. At the end of the First World War it went back to being French.
Now, this trip has brought us face to face with some pretty horrible facts about the Second World War but it seems to me that what happened to Strasbourg is up there with the worst.
In 1939, every civilian in Strasbourg was evacuated to the South of France. In summer 1940, the Germans walked in to claim back the Alsace region as a whole and this city in particular. The refugees returned to live in what was now considered to be part of Germany, not occupied France. So the people were not allowed to speak anything other than German or even to whistle the Marseillaise (which was, incidentally,written in Strasbourg.).
Worst of all, the men were now conscripted into the German army being expected to fight against their French countrymen. Most of these young soldiers ended up being sent to the Russian front; few returned. Strasbourg was liberated in 1944 and became French again.
When the Council of Europe was set up after 1949 with the aim of working peacefully to promote democracy and human rights, Strasbourg was chosen as its headquarters. In fact, our boat ride took us past the impressive buildings which now house this organisation. The commentary on the boat was prerecorded, of course, before the referendum and it extolled the achievements of the Council of Europe. Helàs.
The apartment, which ActorLaddie and I have just left, was one of the most luxurious of our trip. It is the home of a young student of Fine Arts, Elise: apparently Strasbourg has the second biggest university in France. Elise’s boyfriend is a blues musician and the apartment was decorated with posters of the Beatles, Bowie and Hendrix. She was suitably impressed with ActorLaddie’s reminiscences of seeing Hendrix et al long, long ago on a planet far, far away.
Elise asked about our travels: probably a mistake if you have anything else to do. We said how much we’d enjoyed Germany and how friendly everyone had been. Yes, she said, she liked Germany too and, with it being so close, she and her friends regularly visit for shopping, meeting German friends and so on. Which is a Good Thing, n’est ce pas?
Right, that’s the warning, Lille station in about ten minutes away. Books away class. Last day of term tomorrow, so you may bring in games. Sit up straight there, Aunty Bess. I’ve a board rubber and I’m not afraid to use it.