Chicory and Cole Porter

Friday, 13 November 2009

My brother and me. Check out my fabulous titfer.*

There was one redeeming feature of the rubbish international experience that comprised my final two years of high school 'education.' It came in the form of my drama teacher, Mr. McBain. Drama teacher doesn't even begin to do him justice. A great bear of a man, from Maine via Tehran and several European capitals, he was one of those teachers that come along once in a lifetime. His belly laugh reverberated down the hall from his studio at the top of the stairs. It was filled with ephemera from a lifelong love of the arts and a lot of cigarette smoke. (This was the 80s, bear with us.) He looked like Balloo, coated in cashmere and swathed in scarves. He expected, and was rewarded with, professionalism and committment. Woe betide anyone who didn't learn their lines or was late to rehearsal. He wasn't afraid to colourfully erupt and that man took swearing to an art form. Everyone adored him.

He saved my skin on several occasions in those early furious days. He caught me weaving my way to the physics lab having liberated a bottle of Martini from the faculty fridge (like I said, it was the 80s) and hauled me into his cave. 'Sit down, drink this black coffee and learn this song.' 'But I can't sing.' 'If I say you can, you will.' He had no truck with my teenage life-is-shit-my-parents-teach-here-I-have-no-life-pass-me-the-Sartre bullshit. He took the rap on the stolen Martini and in return, I would knuckle down and take the lead in the end of term all-school production of Anything Goes, playing Reno Sweeney, a reformed nightclub-singer-turned-Evangelist.

It was a small school, only twelve in my class and about a hundred all in, all nationalities and degrees of acting ability. Several kids didn't even speak English. He kicked our arses. He brought in the Belgian Army to build sets. He had the hatmaker to the Queen of Belgium design our gorgeous costumes. He wheeled in a Hungarian refugee jazz musician to arrange the score. Someone's mother had been on Broadway and she did the choreography. You'd do anything for him, I told you.

Rehearsals were seriously hard work; we sweated - just like Fame. Including legwarmers. We also laughed till we cried - Mr McBain's trousers splitting waistband to waistband as he demonstrated high-kicking down the staircase still makes me smile. On opening night, he quelled my inner diva with a slug of wine and a Cocktail Sobranie in an elegant black holder, having gone nose to nose with the Head to let me smoke during my torch song. All of us loved it, we had a riot - even the audience.

After I escaped to University, a highlight of every holiday was dinner at his impeccably decorated townhouse. I count myself a lucky girl to have in my memory bank the sight and sound of him, throwing back his head in a huge roar of laughter, candles flickering on the pictures, hats and sketches. He usually cooked this traditional Belgian dish, which must be eaten with lots of wine, reminisces and dirty jokes. Follow with Cole Porter round the piano if you can.

Parboil 6 heads of trimmed chicory. Drain then wrap each one in a slice emmenthal or gruyere then a slice of good smoked ham. Lay in a buttered dish, cover with cheese sauce (the usual way - roux, milk, grated cheese and a scrunch of nutmeg.) Sprinkle more cheese on top and bake in a medium oven until golden and bubbling. Fresh bread and a bitter salad are good here.

*Tit fer tat. Hat. I've still got it.


  1. I seriously love the hat! I was never one for drama, I was always enrolled in large schools so there were many students who lived to act. My one talent was summed up by Coach Howard,"Just stand there it takes two of their guys to move you".

  2. Lovely! Who was Coach Howard? - feel rather that way during the Harrod's sale.
    Have a fantastic weekend!

  3. Gail, in northern California14 November 2009 at 01:42

    Another wonderful story; Copied it to mail snail-mail to a dear friend who used to be a high school drama teacher He's much happier these days working in the local downtown bookstore. I'm sure he never had the free rein of your Mr. McBain. What a delightful character.

  4. He was the middle school football coach and I was the kid who was a head taller than everyone else in the class photo!

  5. saints be praised for a few-if even 1 that we get to inspire us-la

  6. Oh Gail, he is just wonderful, I miss him very much.
    la - I agree, tragic that so many seem to have been drummed out of the profession now.

  7. Hi, just popped by to say that I've put you up as British Mummy Blogger of the Week.

    Best, PM

  8. The teacher sounds marvellous! I too love his trousers splitting...

  9. Welcome, Pig - yep, best laugh we had in two years..


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