Sunday, December 11, 2011

My academic education begins

When I began work with the North Western Gas Board my first six months as an apprentice were spent in a newly opened training school. In the mornings we received lectures on gas technology and various other aspects of the industry. The afternoons were spent in the workshop learning to bend copper, iron, and lead pipes, to wield and solder then together.

On the first day of class Arthur Barton, the head of the school, began his lecture entering the class clutching a large book. He proceeded to ask us if we knew the meaning of “scintillate, scintillate, constellation galaxy”? When none of us ventured an answer he replied “twinkle, twinkle, little star, you f***** stupid gutter snipes.” He went on "and I suppose you don't know what 'copulate' means do you? It means f******." Then he waved the book at us declaring “This is dictionary. Go out and buy one. Then read it and learn what words mean and how to pronounce them.”

At the time Barton’s admonition had little effect on me. Only after I joined Peter Downham's mid-week Bible Study did they begin to make sense. When I began to attend they were studying the Epistles of John at the end of the New Testament. At the first session I had little to say and was somewhat embarrassed by being asked to read a passage aloud. So I asked Val Grieve what the book was about and lent me a copy of William Barclay’s (1907-1978) New Testament commentary on the letters of St. John.

Barkley was a great writer and the book was a real help. The only problem was that it talked about a group of people known as Gnostics. So at the next Bible Study I contributed by making a comment on the “G-no-sticks.”

No one laughed, and my remark was taken seriously, but clearly there was some confusion about what I was saying. Afterwards, when everyone was drinking coffee and eating cookies, Peter Downing gently pointed out that my pronunciation was quite confusing and that I when I encountered a new word I really ought to use a dictionary to discover its meaning. Now Arthur Barton’s vivid lesson began to make sense and I developed an interest in words.

When I mentioned the fact that I had made a fool of myself to the gas fitter I served most of my apprenticeship with, Bass Mutch, he came up with a great solution. In his cellar he had a large collection of the Reader’s Digest which he was about to dump. So he gave them to me and suggested that I read the section “It pays to increase  your word power.” This was great advice and for the next six months I carried a copy of the Reader’s Digest with me which I read as I walked from job to job. They worked wonders and I took my first step towards becoming an academic.

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