Wednesday 7 September 2022


 Growing up with France in the head.


As a child born during World War II and growing up in the years after I was very much aware of the existence of France and Germany.  As an early reader I read newspapers, in imitation of my father Billy, whose chosen paper was the News Chronicle. I found it easy to admire the brave French partisans who defended their country from their powerful occupiers. In the years after the end of the war as well as relishing of the victory, I read eagerly the tales of the liberation of France. Even as quite small a child I felt lucky that Hitler didn’t get to walk down Whitehall as he strode down the Champs-Élysées, swastikas flying.

My sense of the existence of France and Germany took a richer and more informed shape when I finally went to the grammar school at the age of 11. The so-called Eleven Plus was a crude if effective generic IQ test across the whole population which carried with it the reward of a well-resourced education.

So, despite being the poorest of the poor, and living in a two-bedroomed house complete with privy in a narrow street in a mining town in the North East,  three of the four children in this family passed the eleven plus for the grammar school. The fourth – my sweet brother Tom, had been in hospital in the crucial year before and didn’t sit the test.

So, at the age of eleven I entered the much revered grammar wearing the basic uniform bought on tick from Doggart’s store. In this school the teachers wore caps and gowns for assembly and the curriculum was geared towards white collar jobs and the university.

I knew I had entered a new world when – in the first week - I met Mr Phorson, head of French, who addressed my class only in French from the moment we entered the classroom. I was to discover later that this was called the Phorson Method. Interestingly this Method was experienced in the next generation by my daughter Debora at her school, at the hands of her teacher Mrs Snow (Madame la Neige!) who had had been a student of Mr Phorson when she was at Durham University. By then he was a respected professor in the  French at the University. A footnote here might be that Debora  now lives in France and writes lyrically about her life there. (See )

Through  Mr Phorson’s meticulous teaching,  by the time I was 18 I was reading in French the works of Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac and the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud. But truly there is balance in all things.  A couple of years after meeting Mr Phorson  I also fell into the hands of Mr Thompson, head of German,  and eventually was reading Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in German. At times I was bemused to think that a country with such fine and sensitive literature as Germany could fall into the trap of Nazi ideology

Anyway, here was I in my shabby uniform, walking to and to the grammar from my Little Street house, becoming a serious European while many around me expressed their distaste for Germans: the boys playing fight games labelled German’s ‘n English, or Japs ‘n English with pretend guns, the girls turning up their nose when I practised quoting Goethe.

However that feeling was mitigated for me as I absorbed the tenderness of Heinrich Heine and shared the pain of a German soldier in as he froze  on the Russian front in Heinrich Heine’s poem Der Viele Viele Schnee.

And then there was a salutary experience in the 1950s when my German teacher Mr Thompson introduced the class to a visiting German teacher from Dresden who had experienced the wipe-out bombing in that beautiful city by Allied forces towards the end of the war.

Anyway, this growing access to the language and literature of both France and Germany served me, you might say, as an early lesson about the complex nature of my European identity.

By the time my third young adult novel French Leave was published, (still at that time Hodder and Stoughton – not yet Headline…) in 1988 my son and daughter were 22 and 24 respectively. You might say their childhood was my very long practical study in the identity and world-view of both boys and girls.

So it was a pleasure writing more closely in French Leave about a friendship between two boys -Joe and his gypsy friend Skemmer as well as well as Joe’s grandfather, who was part of their adventure. Never having had known either of my grandfathers – or only having  met them in my imagination – it was great fun that as well as exploring the relationship between Joe and Skemmer in that story I enjoyed inventing the relationship between Joe and his grandfather who had experienced service in the Second World War.

When I wrote French Leave I had only been to France once   when husband and I crossed the channel and wandered around Normandy in our blue Jaguar* with our friends Bob and Lil. It was a deep pleasure for me to hear French as she is spoken and observe the norms and practices of everyday life we explored the small towns. There were so many non-textbook lessons now to learn here – not least one about food.

One outstanding memory was stopping in a small village in the mid-afternoon hoping we could find some lunch. We stopped to get petrol in a garage and then walked in to a workman’s café next door. The place smelled of food and spice and on its  long tables lay the detritus of finished meal and empty wine bottles without their screw tops.

The owner caught sight of us, ducked his head and said he was desolate that there was no food left. At least I thought that was what he said. Then he shook his head, open his arms wide and gestured for us to sit down at the end of the large central table.

He only took a minute to clear the table of the empty bottles and plates. ‘Madame!’ He called across  to the e woman who was stacking the dishes at a long open hatch.

In no time glasses and full bottles of wine were placed before us and in twenty minutes Madame was bustling across with a tray on each arm, loaded with a large omelette. Delicious.

(* See also my poem Blue Jaguar on p44 in my collection With Such Caution)

Since then I have enjoyed many such welcomes in many parts of France right down as far as the Languedoc in the fae South West which, like my own north-east England, has its own language which refuses to be put down.

For you! A taste of French Leave.

From Page 31

(Joe has been chasing around trying to get the paperwork right for his grandfather to travel to France.)

Skemmer stood up. “And the woman said it might take ages to come, like?”


Skemmer glanced around the garage, which was deserted. Old Pollard must’ve gone out for his dinner. Skemmer pulled Joe into to the little corner office. On the cluttered desk was a white telephone smeared almost black with grease. The phone number was stuck on the front with a brown cracking Sellotape. He rang Directory Enquiries and got a number, which he proceeded to dial. When somebody answered the phone he started to speak.

It dawned on Joe that  Skemmer was pretending to be him.

“… It’s my grandad, like. He was in the war. D-Day. You know… Whether you’re in Ely shut his number… What… Dying like… Only a few weeks to go. He wants the see the place where he… Yeah, yeah! Anything you could do to hurry it up… Why thanks like. That’s really good.” Then he gave the details, the addresses and all.

As Skemmer slammed down the phone Joe noticed how black his nails were. right down to the cuticles: how black the oil was in the very pores of the skin.

‘I don’t know whether he was she was just giving me the mouth, but she says she’ll watch out for it. Give it some kind of priority. Said she wasn’t allowed to but…”

Joe was mad that Skemmer knew exactly what to do. But he was curious as well. How could somebody like Skemmer do all this?  

Cover Copy of 1988 edition of French Leave

“17-year-old Joe shares a close friendship with his grandfather, Bob, and when the old man suggests a trip to France the scene of his wartime experiences, Joe eager to go to. They travel in Bob’s old banger, gaily painted by Joe’s gypsy mate, Skemmer, who accompanies them. There the confident and enterprising Skemmer is an odd companion for Joe, whose shyness and lack of direction a stumbling block for this, his first trip to the continent and his encounter with a friendly outgoing American girl. A little rivalry, memories of truck tragic past and a real present-day crisis also to help you learn more about himself, to establish his first relationship with a girl, and come to terms with his uneasy family situation.

Publisher’s Biography on the cover of French Leave: “ ‘Wendy Robertson has written to other novels for teenagers Lizza, and The Real Life Of Studs Mcguire. Of that novel the review magazine Growing Point has written: ‘The Real Life Of Studs McGuire states fair and square in an urban dilemma in an up-to-date setting and through strongly contemporary characters… The action is swift and exciting enough to carry the message to those who read itI

I like to think that the same may be said of French Leave. Wx

I like to think that the same may be said of French Leave. Wx


Amazingly it seems that copies of French Leave is still available through the magic of the Internet - albeit without its wonderful cover. If you are interested, you can find it here: 

Afterthought.  In combing through my shelves for this new 'Tasting Life Twice' Project I have come across two versions of the French language edition of French Leave, so thought I you might like to see the covers.

Perhaps it's also worth noting here in this essay that two of my later novels – Writing at the Maison Bleue and An Englishwoman in France also take place in this France that still sits in my head ... Wx

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