School days

Hudson River, Stillwater, NY 8th May 2023

With political problems becoming ever more complicated in 1962, after six years in South East Asia, my parents sent me to boarding school back in England.

How they selected a school run by Catholic nuns, I’m not sure but that is where I spent the next two years.

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My education up to that point had been a little haphazard. At first in Cambodia, I attended the American school but this only lasted for a matter of months.

Whether I was disinvited or whether my parents withdrew me, I have never known. I have suspicions. I was not sad to leave.

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Cut loose from the American school, I had a wonderful time away from classrooms and lessons.

It’s a little hard to believe, but for a year there was no school in my life. Not a conventional one anyway.

At the time of my “liberation”, we had moved from the flat we had been squashed into.

A pair of flats, actually, at the end of a block. My father fenced them off from a shared veranda and this was the means by which made 2 flats into one.

One was a shared bedroom, the other an all-purpose living room.

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For my parents it would have been a relief to move into a house but the flat was much more interesting, as it overlooked the Tonle Sap River which flowed into the mighty Mekong in front of the Royal Palace, just along the road.

Throughout the day small boats arrived laden with all manner of items which were then transferred to carts for transport to the market.

At dawn, we watched flocks of birds traversing the river and in the evening as they returned, bats were flying in the other direction.

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At the end of the monsoon, the volume of water flowing down the Mekong River turned the Tonle Sap back on itself, driving it into Lake Tonle Sap.

This was the time of the Water Festival, celebrated by boat races. I enjoyed this a lot, particularly when one of the boats sank.

The boat races of 1956 were entertaining but nothing to the colourful display staged nowadays. Mostly for tourists, no doubt.

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Overlooking the river had another benefit.

My parents ordered goods from Crawford’s in Hong Kong. In due course a small freighter bearing a Union Jack sailed into view. Then we knew our stuff had arrived.

The house was in a residential part of town. By the river there had always at least been a breeze.

Not here. At night the netted shutters were closed to keep out mosquitoes. The benefit of this was that at least we did not need to sleep under nets.

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In those days, I was not bothered by hot weather. It had hit me like a wall at first, but I had adjusted in a matter of days.

At night, shutters closed and often without electricity, it must have been rather a black pit but I don’t remember anyone minding.

A colleague of my father’s moved in with us and became a good friend..

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For excitement, this house had a ghost that was reported to Mum by Sai See the maid who used to arrive early and sit on the veranda.

She said that the ghost had attacked her out there one morning.

Mum dismissed the idea, saying Sai See had obviously fallen asleep and dreamed it.

However, we later heard the same story from the next tenants.

It turned out a man had hanged himself from a tree in the garden, so a priest was called in to appease the spirit.

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The only frightening thing that happened to us was my mother’s gas stove blowing up and a tree falling on the veranda, not quite into my bedroom.

There was a “servants quarter” attached, so Sai See brought her cat Kleang to live there, making him my first real feline encounter.

She also turned up one day with a civet cat, very much to my delight.

By far the best thing in 1957, as far as I was concerned, was that I did not go to school!

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This might be called irresponsible parenting. On the other hand, I accompanied my parents on numerous trips around the county.

Not least to the ruins of Angkor.

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How often I have wished I could go back!

But to the way it was, in 1957.

At the age of nine I was old enough to be impressed but at that time, I had nothing to compare it with, no way of realising how vast and incredible it actually was.

Though I would still recognise the dank smell of bats and the sound of the encroaching jungle.

The true gift of that experience: to view the ruins with no other discernible sound.

Un-distracted by the tourists that would flock there in the future.

While Mum and I wandered about, swatting mosquitoes, Dad took photographs. He was a professional. His photographs are good.

They have historical value.

Who do I leave them to?

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The ruins of an ancient, great civilisation were one sort of education.

Encountering a modern culture so very different to my own was another.

Dad often took Mum and I with him to villages away from Phnom Penh.

But there was more.

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Sai See was my mother’s maid.

Mother did not need a maid, but it was a valued source of employment and foreigners were expected to take on domestic help.

Sai See learned about afternoon tea.

She seemed to spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen with Mum. From them I learned the art of communication where there is no common language.

Sai See was a friend. As well as sharing her cat, she often took me to Indian movies that neither of us could understand which didn’t matter.

Perhaps it was Mum’s way of getting rid of the pair of us for an afternoon.

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The year of no school would not have been the same if I had not befriended an Australian girl of similar age.

She was supposed to be doing correspondence courses but it seems to me we spent a great deal of time out and about in Phnom Penh.

On one famous occasion we went searching for “criminals” who we were convinced were hiding out in the attic of the Hotel Le Royal.

We were roundly told off by an irate Frenchman whose siesta we disturbed.

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We travelled around by cyclo-pousse or sometimes in her father’s chauffeur-driven car. We also walked a fair bit.

When we decided to go home, it was hers that we went to. Two of her elder brothers were there but they avoided us. Can’t think why.

Cats were a large feature, starting with a Siamese named Mao who soon collected a series of lady friends.

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Catholic church

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One night when I was staying over, we were admonished “NO MORE CATS!”

No sooner had the parents departed for their function, than we opened the door…

I have always been able to remember the year in which Sputnik 1 was launched, because that is what the little scrap on the doormat was named.

This is obviously where I gained my early cat training.

Those were good days.

Train station

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All good episodes come to an end. In 1958 my dad was going to be transferred.

Time to panic about the little ignoramus.

This was the Lycee where I should have been sent to begin with. Children pick up languages like a sponge.

Back then there seems to have been a curious notion that if your child was to be exposed to something challenging, you could make things easier for it by lowering your expectations.

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The American school had dropped me back a grade when I failed to comprehend a math problem that involved dollars and cents which I had never heard of and then they told me I pronounced things incorrectly.

The Ecole Norodome went one better.

They put me in infant school and penalised my artistic attempts because I had large hands.

Already demeaned, my darling classmates compounded my humiliation by looking up my skirt.

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What did they expect to see?

Was I so strange?

All I knew was that I didn’t like it and no-one tried to stop them.

No child was ever more motivated to learn a foreign language.

By the time we moved to Saigon, six months later, I was fluent enough to be admitted to an appropriate class and I spent the next four years getting a French education.

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Yesterday out of the blue I got a message from someone I was at school with in 1962-64. I have often thought of her and searched for her online with no luck.

Suddenly I got a message: “Did we go to school together?”

And that is what steered me to those long-ago school days.

9 thoughts on “School days

  1. Gosh!
    Crikey!
    Wow!
    What to say?
    Nothing really except to say thank you for sharing your story.
    Which does of course come with a dire foretelling of th unknown yet to become your fate: “Sai See brought her cat Kleang to live there, making him my first real feline encounter.”
    Again – Thank you. What an extraordinary childhood. And told so well.

  2. You have led such a fascinating life! I love your stories of your childhood. It had some awful difficulties, but it does make for interesting tales. Your photography skills may come from your father – such beautiful pictures!! There must be someone who would want them as historical records of an unimaginable, abandoned place of peace and quiet, so rare now in our overpopulated world. I gather Angkor is now indeed a top tourist destination. Your trips before tourism became so rampant are some of my favorite of your chronicles.
    Iā€™m no fan of getting old, but I am glad we were born before the crowds.
    Thanks for this captivating journey back in time!

  3. I am envious of your childhood travels, and especially a year with no school being able to explore exotic Cambodia. But I am sensible enough to realise that I would have likely been terrified of leaving London at that age, and walking away everything familiar to me as a child.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. It wasn’t as if I had a choice! My brother who is 3 years older had just passed his 11+, so he was sent to boarding school in Ipswich. Mum always felt guilty where he was concerned. The rest of the family (only a handful of people) assumed that I was the spoiled child with a charmed life. There were so many misunderstandings, resentments etc that resulted and my brother and I have only ever been together for short visits (and only a few) ever since. It was not a very solid foundation but it certainly was different.

  4. Your visit to the ruins of Angkor so long ago … it must have been very special then to see it without the crowds of today! And you’re right, the photos are stunning. The reasons why the American school dropped you a grade would definitely have been my fate too! Thanks so much for this trip down memory lane ā€¦ I think it could make a great book you know šŸ™‚.

  5. Wow, what an amazing chapter of your memoirs! Really enjoyed your storytelling and the aged photos.
    Angkor must have been much better in those day than now – sad to say, it’s too commercial these days but think we’ve chatted about that already.

    My first 6 years at school was at a co-ed school run by nuns – they were brutal and think the non-nun teachers learnt how to become brutal from the nuns. Commiserations!

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