Here at Finds Towers, as we celebrate our February reissue of Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War by Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman, we have been delighted to receive a communiqué from one of Faber’s foremost authors, Michael Frayn, who himself plays a part in Secret Classrooms’ remarkable narrative. Michael writes:
Getting the British to speak other languages is about as hard as persuading pigs to fly. Getting some five thousand of us airborne in Russian during our National Service was a spectacular feat of mass levitation. This book is the story of how it was done…
One could hardly read that much and not wish to know more… Michael Leapman, by way of his original review of Secret Classrooms for the Independent, takes up the story:
As tension in Europe rose in the late 1940s, the authorities came to realise that hardly anyone in Britain could speak the language of our potential enemies. How could we engage in sophisticated spy missions if we had nobody who could read the names of the stations on the Moscow Metro? And if it did come to war, how could we interrogate those prisoners unsporting enough not to speak English? The answer lay in National Service… Why not cream off the brainiest [conscripts], especially those with an aptitude for languages, and subject them to an intensive programme aimed at making them fluent in Russian in little more than a year? A joint services school for linguists (JSSL) was established in Coulsdon, in Surrey. It moved to Bodmin, in Cornwall, and finally to Crail, in East Fife. When word of the scheme reached students, they were quick to recognise that this would be a “cushy number” compared with confronting the Queen’s enemies in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya or Suez…
The JSSL kursanty was a remarkable cohort, and JSSL alumni – among them Sir Peter Hall, Alan Bennett, Sir Martin Gilbert, D. M. Thomas, and the aforementioned Michael Frayn, who edited the school magazine Samovar – seem to look back on the experience with considerable affection. Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman have their own tales to tell, of course, and when I asked them both to reflect on what the JSSL experience had meant to them in their subsequent lives and careers, they were kind enough to provide me with the following reminiscences:
HAROLD SHUKMAN: “In 1954, having recently graduated as an interpreter from the RAF Russian Course, I was a first-year student at Nottingham University and, for reasons never revealed to me, I was elected by the student body to join a delegation – the first since the war – to visit the Soviet Union. All 20 British universities – minus Oxford and Cambridge which were not affiliated to the NUS at the time – sent a delegate, and as the sole Russian speaker I was made the interpreter. Our hosts were the Anti-Fascist Committee for Soviet Youth and our purpose was to learn about Soviet higher education. We still had rationing in the UK, but it seemed to us that the Russians had too little in their food shops even to ration. Yet we were feasted three times a day, with chilled caviar even at breakfast and huge suppers after the nightly opera, ballet, concert or (perhaps for me alone) Chekhov play at the Arts Theatre. Stalin had been dead only a year and Westerners, apart from diplomats, were hardly ever seen in Russia. Wherever we went, as soon as I was heard to utter a word in Russian, a crowd would surround me and gawk. Thanks to JSSL.”
GEOFFREY ELLIOT: “‘Old men forget’ – names, car keys, shopping lists. But much of the Russian drummed into me in those Secret Classrooms is still hard-wired in my memory. I used the language for a while as a translator and Reuters radio monitor, my dial set to Radio Moscow, from which in 1962 I snatched the first news that Khrushchev had ordered his missile-laden ships to turn back from Cuba. Later on, as a banker, I found numbers more important than languages, and yet visiting Siberia in 2004 I surprised myself (and the journalist in question) by giving a long interview in Russian to a Yakutsk newspaper about life in Bermuda. At The Wallace Collection last year I got talking to a trio of Russian football commentators, over to report a Chelsea match. (Hard to imagine a visiting Sky Sports contingent touring the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow with the same informed enthusiasm). ‘You speak good Russian’, one of them told me, ‘but your vocabulary and accent are like an émigré who has been out of the country for 30 years.’ I took it as a compliment, not to me but to the discipline and passion of those who taught us half a century ago.”
Secret Classrooms, quite rightly hailed by the Spectator as ‘vivacious’ and ‘highly entertaining’ is available for order here.