I’ve a compulsive ambition to become fluent in French so I’ve been going to weekly classes for a few years. I love language and need to keep learning stuff to exercise my flabby brain cells whose only other regular work-out comes when I compile shopping lists. So, studying French feels good. Ironically I’ve only been to France twice and neither trip was for pleasure. The first time was to visit an oil tanker, of all things, where the most exotic moments were when mingling with engineers in oily boiler-suits, and the second time was spent holed up with some English colleagues in a homogeneous airport hotel, where engineers in oily boiler-suits would have been a welcome distraction. Still, one of these days I’ll pack my beret and Breton top into my valise and attempt to break the world record for running down the Louvre.
Most of the year, in my small, informal French class, we learn the rules and complexities of tense and grammar. But in Summer the structure changes and we just chat. From the first “Ça va?” to the last “Au revoir!” we don’t speak a word of English and it’s a brilliant way to practise. After 75 minutes of metaphorical running on the spot I’m almost thinking in French, even if it’s just a baby-talk version. To help us focus, we’re given a specific topic for each session and the chance to prepare in advance. Subjects have included ‘food’, ‘a favourite piece of art’, ‘something new you learned this year’, that kind of thing. In the last few weeks I’ve ended up discussing Don Powell from Slade losing his sense of smell and caterpillars (but not at the same time). It’s a great way to learn new vocabulary and my thumbs get a good work-out too as they leaf through the French dictionary to find the words for drummer and cocoon, etc. And should I ever find myself in conversation with a French person about ‘70s bands from the Midlands or insect larvae, I’ll be well equipped.
Anyway, the next topic is ‘Desert Island Discs’. At first I was really excited - wow, a chance to talk about my favourite bands / records! – but now the lesson looms closer and I haven’t got a clue how to tackle it. For a start I don’t know how to narrow it down to just a handful of tracks. I’ve never tried to compile a DID list before; I don’t have anything definitive in mind and my aural preferences tend to change week by week. I know that the purpose of the exercise here is not really to demonstrate one’s impeccable musical taste, but still there’s something inside me that feels compelled to make meaningful choices. If I’m going to talk about them in French, then it seems only right that I should also be able to talk about them with passion.
Where to begin? How do I narrow down several decades’ worth of listening to just eight songs? Eight songs that I’d want to hear whilst going slowly insane, looking out to a tropical sea, sipping coconut milk and hallucinating about talking conch shells? Would I want to hear 'London Calling' to remind me of grey English skies, city fumes and a misspent youth? Yet would it be unwise to take some Saint Etienne in case I accidentally trod on a scorpion whilst dancing naked in the sand to their irresistible rhythms? And would Morrissey remind me of just how lonely I was in this godforsaken hell-hole prison cell of an island paradise? Or would Suede find me slowly turning into a man as the combination of a Brett Anderson obsession and the nuclear fallout from secret tests on a nearby atoll caused me to grow unexpected appendages?
And then there’s the book and the luxury item as well! This is harder than learning French!