Sunday, June 21, 2009

Axe falls on Frith Street

'Ooh, what shall we do if we have no teacher!' wailed the French member of the class. Like the rest of the Chinese class she'd taken the low-priced daytime instruction for granted. We're an assorted crew of elderly Europeans and Chinese dialect speakers who've been studying together for years. Come September we'll be scattered.

My regular reader knows I've been involved with Chinese since 1994, when I returned from Singapore amazed by the respect for education embedded in Chinese culture. I had to find out more. Fortunately there was a Mandarin evening class at nearby Goldsmiths college. I studied for three happy years with an infinitely patient Taiwanese teacher.

I had reason to be thankful I live in London when I needed to move on to a higher level: to classes at Morley College, then Westminster University and even, SOAS, infamous for its exorbitant fees. You get to a certain level and I suppose they assume you're doing it for career reasons. I was still employed, so it was affordable

Progress is almost imperceptible with such a fiendish language. Even a year working in China didn't make much difference - there everybody wants to speak English to foreigners. I got more practice in Spain, really, where Chinese mainlanders have cornered the market in cheap souvenirs and household implement shops - a godsend for self-caterers renting flats with cups like thimbles and no corkscrews.

Anyway, for the last two or three years I've been commuting twice a week to Soho, climbing stairs to the top floor of a ramshackle stack of classrooms opposite Ronnie Scott's, between a stagedoor and a tattoo parlour.

We knew the premises were under threat, but it came as a blow when we heard our class was to be axed. It's the same all over, with adult education colleges facing funding cuts. There'll be handwringing and sad faces at the end-of-term lunch in Chinatown.


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