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National service


Classes at school and a trip to Paris
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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For some reason I didn't really find the history hugely interesting. We'd done the Tudors, I think, at my previous school and we seemed to keep on doing the Tudors, I never really got much out of it. I think we may have got as far as the Civil War, as a result of which I've always been totally ignorant about the development of the British political system, and although it was quite interesting to know about the wives of Henry VIII and what Queen Elizabeth did next, it - it never really seemed to add up to very much. The science was much more concrete. You really felt you were learning things that were demonstrable things and the experiments were well designed so that you could actually investigate the issues in question and so on. So I didn't really get much out of the history, and I didn't actually find the Latin classes very interesting. I enjoyed the French because there was a lot of conversation there and so that was - that was pleasant, but I found Latin difficult to get a grip on, I think perhaps because it was never taught as a spoken subject. I think there were some people that learn a language by reading it and others by speaking in it somewhat, so I didn't really find the history very rewarding. But the French was - was positive. My father was very interested in languages. He had a real interest in languages and spoke some Spanish and some German and some French and so on, and he felt very strongly that I ought to be learning a language properly. And when we were in France on that trip to Les Eyzies we met up with a French family, a very pleasant French family, so I went to stay with them for a few weeks while I was still at school, did an exchange, and then Pierre Magnol came over and stayed with us for a few weeks and that was pleasant and certainly good for the French because if you're staying in the family you really are talking in French. So, I think with my father, who must have inspired me that it would be a good idea before going up to do one's national service, because I'd done that scholarship examination in St John's College. That was December, I think, in 1955, so that it would probably be a few months before I'd expect to be called up for national service and so we arranged that I should go to Paris and stay with the family there and went to daily classes in an organisation called the Institut Britannique, which gave French classes, really very good French classes, for foreign students but because I was staying with a family, that was really very - the family was very nice. They were speaking French all the time and living in Paris and plenty of time to go and see the Louvre and go and see really all the museums of Paris, and I got to know Paris very well. I've been very fond of Paris ever since then and so that was a really interesting experience and I got to know the Louvre very well. I was very fascinated by the Louvre and of course the Louvre is wonderfully dramatic with the Venus de Milo here and the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the top of the stairways there and so on, and, of course, it has paintings as well as sculpture so got to know some of the, the Italian paintings well so it was a nice experience to be able to follow one's own inclination and go to the theatre quite a lot, Genet's "La Cantatrice Chauve" and "The Bald Prima Donna" was on then. And I'd been going to the theatre quite a lot while I was at school and we had a schoolmaster who used to take us to concerts which was very positive. And so I'd seem Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in the first English production but, in fact, it was a play that was originally produced in France in French and I was able to see the revival of "Waiting for Godot" in Paris and really began to feel quite at home in the French language which I found really a nice experience to be able to function without thinking back into English which was a very good thing. And so I'd seen quite a lot of archaeology one way and another, and found that particularly interesting.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 4 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009