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Eton then and now


Swapping Eton for Strasbourg
John Julius Norwich Writer
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My father said when I was 17, he said, 'It's far better… stay on if you like but I think you ought to get out now. You've done your' – what corresponded to the GCE thing, higher certificate or something - I can't remember what it was called – 'and you've done that. If you were going to be a great success at the school, if you were going to be the Captain of a house or President of Pop or something like that, it might be worth staying on. But as you're clearly not going to be a success, if I were you, I'd stop now and go somewhere for a little bit of time before... in other words, have a gap year.' The phrase was unknown at that time but that's what he was really suggesting I did. And so that's what I did, and I knew that I was due for call-up at some early stage after my 18th birthday, and so I left a year before it.

And I went to the University of Strasbourg which was great fun. I lived with a French family and went on talking French. I thought Strasbourg would also teach me German because all Alsatians are bilingual, but of course they'd just had five years of war in which they were part of Germany and made to speak German. So you just couldn't get them to do it. They would sort of politely answer you in German but within about two or three sentences, they'd gone back to French again; they really hated it so much. So I didn't really learn any German there at all. They had quite a good Russian faculty, I'd started adding Russian earlier on. And that was... that was moderately good although, but again, I don't think it helped me very much largely because if you want to learn any language, you've got to immerse yourself, and learning Russian at Strasbourg was like learning Russian at Oxford, you know, it's no good. You've got to go in there to a family and be completely surrounded as I was in doing French in Strasbourg, but in Russia of course in those days that was out of the question. The Iron Curtain was firmly down and you couldn't do anything like that at all. So my Russian never got any good, really. I read War and Peace in it, but I couldn't ask for the butter and it was all very odd.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: University of Strasbourg, Eton College

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018