Iain Salisbury

This contribution was written before Professor Hawkins's death and appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of the Wirral Journal

It was the kind of shock that could prove dangerous at my time of life. The radio-alarm had just uttered the word "Calday", with the second syllable impeccably articulated in tones familiar from half a century earlier. The name derives from 'cauld eye' (cold height) and my erstwhile headmaster had spoken it with relish.

I became a pupil at Calday (emphatically not 'Caldy'!) Grange Grammar School in 1959 and joined the first group to read Physics at the then brand-new University of Warwick in 1966. Eric Hawkins, 'the Gaffer', had been the Headmaster since 1953 but had evidently suffered enough of me by 1965, as he departed to become the first Director of the Language Teaching Centre (LTC) at the University of York.

That morning, Eric was discussing the teaching and learning of languages. I had awoken to Trampling Flat the Frontiers, the last of three quarter-hour talks under the general title of Journey into Language. By the magic of BBC iPlayer, I was able to catch up on the other two: The Journey Begins, covering his time as a pupil at the Liverpool Institute, and Listening to Lorca, in which he gives an account of his studies in Europe in the 1930s. The final programme told of how active service in the "poor bloody infantry" of WWII formed a resolve to promote peace and understanding through improvements in the study of languages.

At this point I should confess that Latin and French were among the worst features of my thoroughly undistinguished Calday career. Despite Eric's innovations, including a "Language Lab" where boys got to play with an array of reel-to-reel tape recorders (with predictable results), I managed a French O-Level grade 9 - the lowest - at the end of the Fifth form. This was followed by an 8 and a 7 - both fails - in the Sixth. Back then, a foreign language was required for university entrance but I was saved by A-Level General Studies, which sufficed as it included two French comprehension exercises. I could understand the stuff well enough, I just couldn't spell in any language. Today I've become dyslexic but back then nobody knew how, so the confident diagnosis was 'laziness'. It was with some relief, therefore, that I shook off irregular verbs for all time, as I thought, when I left Calday to join the 'white-hot technological revolution' of the swinging sixties.

While listening to Professor Hawkins (as he had become) via the computer, I set my search engine to ferret more information. Apart from the York Centre, he was also a founding Governor of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) and, in 2002, he became the "first and sole" Honorary Life member of The Association for Language Awareness (ALA). Since his 90th birthday in 2004, the main keynote paper at ALA conferences has been designated 'The Eric Hawkins Lecture'. In addition to the CBE, he was awarded the French Palmes Académiques. I noticed a book with the now familiar title, Listening to Lorca, among his publications and immediately placed an online order, although I wondered if its contents would be accessible to the non-expert. I need not have worried. In jargon-free prose, the Professor describes the experiences which formed his approach to language learning, including an encounter on the Anzio beachhead with a captured German schoolteacher turned Leutnant who had "almost everything in common with me". The book can be recommended to anyone with an interest in Calday, languages, or education in general. Its title derives from a meeting Eric had in August 1935, while he was studying at the International University at Santander, with the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Lorca was touring with his legendary Barraca (Barn) theatre company. He would be murdered early in the Spanish civil war and, despite recent excavations, his grave has never been found. University students seem to have been less ferociously chaperoned than Lorca's youthful performers, who were segregated into two converted prison vans, because it was at Santander that Eric became engaged to the "young librarian from Copenhagen" who was to become his wife.

Chapter 12 of Listening to Lorca is of most interest here, as it describes "experiments at Calday Grange". It's to the Gaffer's credit that he reports those he regards us doubtful in as much detail as his successes. This period coincided with what Deputy Head Sam Watts describes as "the battle of the bulge" in the 1976 anthology Calday Grange Grammar School (Sam was an inspirational teacher, with a Cambridge First in English, who devoted 42 years to the school). The school roll had expanded explosively to nearly 900 by the inspection of 1963, more than double the number at the previous inspection in 1949. The problems this caused may be gauged from the fact that the assembly hall had been built to accommodate just 350! I recall being in a class of thirty and more, sitting on the floor of a former bedroom in what had been the caretaker's house, attempting to learn to read music and sing where there was scarcely room to breathe.

When it came to teaching languages, the tape recorder and language lab proved to be far from the panacea everyone had hoped. Peter Green, a master at Calday who succeeded Eric as Director of the Language Teaching Centre at York, has explained the dilemma: "However ingeniously the speaking exercises tried to emulate communication, the inescapable fact was that the tape was deaf to what the student was saying. [Julian Dakin] summed it up succinctly in a parody of Polonius, 'Give every tape thine ear but few thy voice'". Eric's wartime contact with French and German soldiers had persuaded him that vocabulary could be acquired quickly under conditions that prompted "language awareness". From 1964, therefore, members of the Calday Lower 6th Language Form began to spend two terms abroad, "immersed", as Eric puts it, in French or German. I remember envying my friends their exotic 'vacations' but not, of course, their weeks of tussle with the various idioms.

The innovation was made possible, in part, by the little-known Bennett Charity, an endowment of farm income which had paid for scholarships to the school prior to the 1944 'Butler' Education Act. Since all of Calday's places were now free, the County Council had purloined the cash. A determined campaign, supported by local MP and House of Commons Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, managed to retrieve it for the school. While parents with the means to do so were still expected to cover such things as travel expenses, thanks to Bennett, nobody would be left behind.

Meanwhile, I fiddled with electron microscopes at the Universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Oxford, blissfully unaware that I could ever be menaced by a horror like "language awareness". By the early 90s, with the 'Big Four-O' birthday already dwindling behind me, I was ready for something different. A visiting Professor from Santiago de Cali, in Colombia, convinced me that the high Andes would offer an interesting change of air. Although I was expected to lecture in English, and would live with teachers of English who were keen to practice, I decided to borrow the BBC Get By in Spanish course from the library. I knew nothing of the shortcomings of such tape-based tuition, as identified by Eric and Peter, and my first impressions on reaching the country were encouraging. Even the dour immigration officer congratulated me on my fluency.

I should not have been complacent. Simón Bolívar, 'the Liberator', described Colombia as resembling "a university", while likening his native Venezuela to "a barracks" (Hugo Chávez, the current president of Venezuela, is spending billions to maintain his country's reputation). Colombians are unfailingly polite and will compliment you if you can manage three verbs in the infinitive plus a bit of semaphore. However much you plead, they won't correct you until you become totally incomprehensible, something I managed all too regularly although not always by mistake. Once I asked for el mando a distancia, a Castilian-Spanish expression which had evidently not crossed the Atlantic. I finally found the device and waved it around. "Ah! El control remoto!" - they'd have me fluent in no time!

I've spent three wonderful sabbaticals in Colombia. It is always sensible to take local advice concerning security, but I was able to drive from Cali to the capital, Santa Fe de Bogotá, in a beautiful little Colombian-built supermini, pausing to scramble up the notorious Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano on the way (in November 1985, an eruption killed more than 23,000 people so it's a mountain to be treated with respect). And, yes, "language awareness" with occasional "immersion", plus a spelling system that is almost totally phonetic, eventually gave me a usable grasp of Spanish.

The Gaffer recommends one-to-one conversation for language learning and in 2003 I joined a group in Spain teaching English in this way. Large parts of central Spain are all but abandoned, with complete villages falling into ruin, and the cultural authorities have been moved to preserve the exterior of a hamlet near Soria called Valdelavilla. The interior has been converted into an hotel and the surrounding hills are being reforested as a vulture sanctuary. We took over the whole hotel/village. Clearly, this kind of tuition is very expensive, so I had the pleasure of chatting to some of the highest 'high-flyers' in Iberia. I still count several among my 'e-friends'. To prevent us all becoming 'stir-crazy' in our bucolic retreat, expeditions were mounted, including one to Soria itself. There I discovered that church murals commissioned by Eleanor 'Leonora of England' in 1180, to atone for the complicity of her father Henry II in the murder of Thomas Becket, were in danger of being lost. Two panels were gone, but the one depicting the killing of the Saint survived precariously. I decided that a letter to the Madrid newspaper El País was in order, although I'm not sure anything came of it. Equally interesting was Numancia, almost the original of Asterix's village, where 3,000 Celtiberians held 75,000 Romans at bay for many months. It took Scipio Aemilianus, who had just conquered the Carthaginian Empire, to bring them to heel (133BC). The victory was considered so significant that it earned him the additional agnomen "Numantinius".

Jung Chang and Iain SalisburyYou can wait for decades for one reminder of your old headmaster, then two come along at once! Eric retired from York in 1979 and accepted a long-standing invitation from the British Council to teach in China. This was only three years after the death of Chairman Mao and he found himself amid the wreckage of the 'Cultural Revolution'. In Listening to Lorca, Eric tells us that the "richest reward" of his time at Nanking University was that it qualified him to be the external examiner of Jung Chang, a student of Peter Green's at York, who had written a PhD thesis comparing teaching in England with that in her native China. Reading this, a paragraph in the 2003 introduction to her prize-winning memoir Wild Swans came to mind. "[In York] I was invited to a talk by a professor who had just been in China. He showed some slides of a school he had visited, where the pupils were having lessons on an obviously freezing winter day, in classrooms with no heating but roundly broken windows. 'Are you not cold', the kindly professor had asked. 'No we are not', the school had answered." The "kindly" professor?!! Clearly she had never been 'awarded' a Saturday morning detention!

Jung Chang's dedication to Eric HawkinsI caught up with Jung Chang at Warwick University recently. She claimed, modestly, to have forgotten most of what she'd known about linguistics, but she had the clearest recollection of the Gaffer. I'm not an enthusiast for book signing but, as we discussed Listening to Lorca, I asked if she'd be kind enough to put a message on the title page. "With love to Prof Hawkins" says it all, really.


Listening to Lorca, Eric Hawkins, Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (1999)

Calday Grange Grammar School, ed. M. J. Protheroe, The School, The Old Caldeian Union and the Parents' Association (1976)

Wild Swans, Jung Chang, Harper Perennial (1991, 2003)

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