Friday, 17 March 2017

Dubious Performances






Not being disparaging about Shirley Temple, of course, but interested in the era (my long ago childhood era) when children, even the most lacking in talent, were expected to have something to contribute to a social gathering. A party piece. A performance to make Mummy and Daddy proud. A miniscule demonstration of some sort of skill or even talent to impress visitors.

I was reminded of this by a friend's recollection. At the age of two and a half he was trained to spell Czechoslovakia. Then I remembered that I was told I could say 'Antidisestablishmentarianism' while I was still in nappies.
Why?
Why on earth were such achievements considered desirable, useful, attractive or anything other than dotty?
As a parent my priority would certainly have been on house-training rather than antidisestablishmentarianism, but I suppose I can still say it, and he can still spell Czechoslovakia, so the training must have done something to our respective infant brains, even if it wasn't terribly useful in the following seventy plus years.

The party piece was often a poem or a song, a hesitant tinkling on the piano or, even worse, the latest practice piece on a stringed instrument. The party wasn't a party at all, but a gathering of adults, sitting around, as uncomfortable as the performing child. An ordeal for all concerned, and a great sense of relief when it was over.
 All this happened in the days before television, of course. The days when adults also sang and played musical instruments at home in the evenings. Everyone had some sort of party piece, even if it was only an uncle who could make his finger-joints crack like castanets.
There were expectations of all of us

Then I remember the emphasis on learning by heart throughout the education system in those distant years. Multiplication tables, hymns and psalms, poems and, at grammar school, great chunks of Keats and Milton and Shakespeare. And I can still do lots of those, too.
And much of the imprinted poetry remains with me, safely in my head, and comes to life at times of stress, sadness and happiness. Great words remain for life, and  I think they are not Czechoslovakia and antidisestablismentarianism.

But then I realise, oh.....actually, they are!

9 comments:

gz said...

I remember the excruciating embarrassment of not remembering poems, dates etc...no one considered dyslexia then

Jenny Woolf said...

After I grew up I tried very hard to learn poems I like by heart, but I had absolutely no success. I was absolutely rotten at it even as a child, but I suppose because I was so much younger I did manage to do it in the end. The result is, to my dismay, that I can still rememberlots od turgid stuff like
"LARS Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and west and south and north,
To summon his array..." Why didn't they set us to learn Shakespeare, at least!

Elephant's Child said...

My parents believed that children should be seen and not heard. No party pieces from me.
I do remember rote learning at school though, and can still recite great slabs of a variety of things - ranging from Kipling to Spike Milligan with Keats and Frost thrown in.

Jee said...

How things stick even if we weren't consciously learning by heart - I have large chunks of the King James' Bible and countless hymns and carols absorbed over years of daily school assembly, song lyrics because my mother always had a radio on and frequently sang along to favourites, and, of course, times tables, and the odd scientific or mathematical theory,law or principal.
I once heard a talk on the radio by a woman who started informal classes in poetry in a nursing home for dementia patients. One day, an elderly man , who hadn't spoken for several years, stood up and recited the whole of Wordsworth's 'Daffodils'. Some words are in our heads for life it would seem.

Jee said...

How things stick even if we weren't consciously learning by heart - I have large chunks of the King James' Bible and countless hymns and carols absorbed over years of daily school assembly, song lyrics because my mother always had a radio on and frequently sang along to favourites, and, of course, times tables, and the odd scientific or mathematical theory,law or principal.
I once heard a talk on the radio by a woman who started informal classes in poetry in a nursing home for dementia patients. One day, an elderly man , who hadn't spoken for several years, stood up and recited the whole of Wordsworth's 'Daffodils'. Some words are in our heads for life it would seem.

Relatively Retiring said...

gz: the emotional content of all this is powerful. I remember locking myself in the lavatory more than once when I saw things were heading towards performance time.(Hope you manage to meet P.Pete.)
Jenny: lumps of Milton have stuck heavily to me. Milton and A.A.Milne:
King John was not a bad man,
He had his little ways,
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days....(useful for history tests).
E.C. that's a splendidly eclectic selection you have there!
Jee: interesting that you mention the process of absorbing, rather than deliberate learning. I can remember quite a lot of hymn numbers in the Hymns A and M book in this way. Yes, I think they are there for life, even at the point where you can't remember what happened an hour ago.

Zhoen said...

Never any good at memorization, unless it was songs. They've stuck in the best and worst of ways.

Thankfully, never had to perform as a kid. Would have horrified me.

Terry Waite wrote about how his memorized prayers and literature sustained him as a captive.

Relatively Retiring said...

Zhoen: for me there was no choice about learning by rote nor about performance. The learning was enforced and tested at school, the performance part ditto by parents as it was thought to be 'character forming'. What sort of character I wonder still?
I've also heard Terry Waite talking about the value of his memories during captivity. A rich resource during a terrible time.

Zhoen said...

RR,
I only had a few mandatory memorized poems for school. My mother wanted me to do some. I dug in my heels pretty hard. And since it wasn't a common requirement by the time I was in school, I got away with it.

Still no idea why I thought I could act, when I struggled to memorize any poem. It's all of a piece, why I dislike poetry as a form, with rare specific exceptions.