At the end of last week, I had a young stagiaire here, observing my every action in the name of work experience. I couldn’t really afford the time, because of the pressing demands of deadlines, but it was a kind of quid pro quo deal. His mother gave our daughter some coaching in French literature for her oral Bac exam, and since the child subsequently obliged with a perfect score, it would have been churlish to turn the boy away.
Besides, once I’d given up trying to work and occupy Victor at the same time, it turned out to be a very agreeable experience. During her work experience, Tilley had mainly sat twiddling her thumbs in a kind of graphic design office. So I was determined that Victor wouldn’t have to endure the ignominy of watching me typing on a keyboard all day long.
Normally, the prospect of trying to communicate with a 14-year old boy would fill me with horror. But Victor proved an exceptional ‘yoot’. Hearing that he was a student of the guitar, I’d made him a compilation of assorted guitar heroics as part of our family effort to thank his mother for her coaching efforts. One evening I got a phone call from him to thank me for the CD and to tell me which tracks he’d particularly liked. I was impressed. I mean, how many 14-year olds can you think of who’d have the self-confidence and good grace to phone up and chat with an adult they didn’t know from Adam? A foreigner, to boot.
He brought his guitar with him and a sheaf of official papers from the school. It was revealing to go through the documents with him on our first afternoon together. What sector was my enterprise in: primary, secondary or tertiary? What hours did I work each day? How many days a week did I work? All sorts of questions that were very difficult to answer and which testify to a cultural incomprehension of the ‘profession libéral’. All his classmates were doing their work experience in shops, bakeries, veterinary practices and the like. Victor, I’m certain, would have been alone in observing someone who follows his own rhythms and who works for himself and for as many hours and as many days as it takes to get the job done.
|How to be a writer|
So what could I do for the poor lad? I showed him a few magazines to which I’ve contributed, a few CD reviews, an e-learning storyboard or two and a notebook full of chaotic ‘Mind Maps’. But it’s not as if you can demonstrate the whole writing process as you might take someone through the process, say, of baking a loaf of bread.
I decided that the most valuable thing I could do for him was to give him a potted history of 20th century American black music to complement his guitar studies. It was the right thing to do, for both of us. It gave me a taste of the joy of sharing a passion and it gave him the reassurance that there are people out there in the world who understand why he wants to be a guitar player when he grows up.
So for 2½ days we had a ball. Armed with some books in French borrowed from Brive library, I set him a curriculum of the blues guitar on Thursday and the jazz guitar on Friday underpinned by a DVD on Wednesday afternoon about the music of New Orleans. I gave him a bit of homework – to read up on the likes of Howling Wolf, T-Bone Walker and Wes Montgomery – in preparation for the music we would spin the following day. As part of the deal, I was supposed to talk to him a bit in English, but translating every other phrase slowed us down too much, so we muddled by in French. I got used to his scrambled syllables, while he sorted out my bizarre pronunciation. Since music is a universal language, we managed fine.
On the second afternoon, he took himself off to our spare bedroom to practise his beloved jazz manouche (gypsy jazz) and promptly fell asleep for an hour and a half, which gave me a chance to catch up on my e-mails and concentrate properly on the guy from Lyon who came to explain how the EDF photovoltaic deal works. Which reminds me… Has anyone out there turned their roof into a private solar farm to produce and sell electricity back to France’s biggest suppliers? If so, does it work as they state on the packet?
While he was asleep, someone from his school phoned up to see how he was getting on, whether he’d arrived punctually and so forth. I told the man that he was a diligent and charming pupil and that everything was going fine. When Victor got up, full of apologies about such a lapse in etiquette, I let it slip that his teacher had phoned up and that he’d wanted to speak to him, but I’d said that it was a shame to wake him up because he was obviously tired out. His expression of barely suppressed horror was wondrous to behold.
Early on Friday evening, Victor’s elegant mother came to pick him up. We all assured her that he had been impeccably polite and helpful and utterly charming, and hoped, without actually saying so, that she would encourage him in his ambition to be a guitarist rather than push him into some ‘sensible’ profession that would probably bore the pants off him.
He went home with a couple of CDs and a few indecipherable Mind Maps and, I think, the ability to tell Albert King from B.B. King, Professor Longhair from Little Richard and Miles Davis from Dizzy Gillespie. No doubt he will have a few revelations to trade with friends who have learned how to kneed bread. As for me, I got an idea of how much more tiring it would have been to have two children rather than one around the house. But I learned a bit about the father/son relationship and the mutual value of handing things down from one generation to the next.
Later that evening I managed to get on with my work, but I’d already indicated on the official papers from the school that I’d be willing to do it again next year. The chances, though, of having another stagiare as interested and as personable as Victor must be fairly slender.