Love In Action At Christmas

Here’s a lovely idea from the small town of Buchs in the Rhine Valley, Switzerland.

On 1 December, a large Christmas tree was erected in a small passageway by the businesses operating there. A feature of this was a “wish box” placed under the tree, where people in need or residents of homes could place a “letter to Santa” with their particular wish for Christmas. These varied from such tiny items as a packet of paper handkerchiefs or a box of chocolates to more unusual services like someone to accompany a woman with low vision on a walk or someone to mow a lawn for an elderly person. Clothes and flowers also figured frequently on these notes.

Just one week later, 412 wishes had been expressed and all had been picked up by passers-by. The “wish box” was empty, and gifts were pouring in. The association organising this exchange has been overwhelmed by the generosity and interest of the local people, but enough volunteers have been recruited to deal with the complicated logistics, and all seems to be running smoothly – this is Switzerland, after all! 

In addition, many other would-be “secret Santas” were clamouring for the opportunity to do something to help people less fortunate than themselves, and so an appeal was made in a local newspaper for more institutions and organisations to send in their wishes. 

What a wonderful way to put brotherly love into practice at this time of the year, and what a heart-warming response! I hope that some of the people involved will have made new friends through this, and that the Spirit of Christmas will extend well beyond the 25 December. And perhaps this very simple idea will also spread to other places where affluence and poverty exist side by side.

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

Reblogging this because it speaks from my heart. Counting and recording every tree and hedge in our neighbourhood might be a drop in the ocean – but what, after all, is an ocean made up of? Thank you, Cathy, for these words.

There are so many environmental problems facing the world that I have to admit to feeling often overwhelmed . The news gives us the big picture and our own eyes and ears show us the reality in our own backyard. My safe place is the garden and so I nurture it and I celebrate it, […]

Small World. — Cathy’s real country garden

A Sweet Old Custom

Before I decided to apply for Swiss nationality, and even during the process, I was asked a few times what advantages it would bring – both for me and for the Swiss state. Quite honestly, I can’t really see that having me as a naturalised citizen brings many advantages for Switzerland (I’ve always paid my taxes, health insurance, etc. and contributed generally to the Swiss economy so no change there), but my answer usually included the fact that for me, it would be nice to have the right to vote and that they wouldn’t be able to deprive me of my right to residence in the country (i.e. they can no longer kick me out).

This would have been useful to me during the time I spent looking after my mother in England from December 2011 to March 2017, as I had to return to Switzerland after 4 years otherwise I would indeed have lost my Swiss residence permit. Had I had Swiss citizenship at the time, I’d have been allowed to stay permanently at my mother’s home until her death with no fear of the consequences in Switzerland, instead of having to keep careful count of the number of days I spent away in the year 2016 to ensure that my absence didn’t exceed 180, the maximum allowed. There’s little point now in dwelling on the possible benefits for my mother, but it could have made a huge difference to her final months.

Well, I have now been Swiss for four months and I have made good use of my voting rights and proudly flashed my ID card with its little white cross (so much easier to carry around than a passport) together with my QR code (my smart phone really is very smart!) in restaurants during the last week or so to prove that I have had my Covid jabs. 

However, a further advantage that I was totally unaware of came as a pleasant surprise last week: a letter in the post announcing that, as a citizen or bourgeoise (Ortsbürgerin*) of Bad Ragaz I am entitled to receive a portion of the village apple harvest, either 10 kg of apples or 10 litres of apple juice (though not half and half, which I’d have preferred). It’s up to me to go and collect it, and it appears that if I were a family and not just a single individual, each member of my family would also be allowed to claim their portion. 

What a delightful idea! We have two apple trees in our garden that looked amazing in springtime but spent the months of August and September littering the lawn with worm-infested fruit that gave our robot lawnmower indigestion, so it’s very encouraging to know that at least some of the local apple trees managed to keep their apples grub-free and that these were harvested. 

A little historical investigation into this custom revealed that in former times most villagers had fruit trees, some of them in communal orchards, and shared in the care of these. Similarly with the hayfields, since most people had a cow or goat or two that needed fodder when fresh grass wasn’t available. Consequently, everyone joined in the work at harvest, and all were rewarded with a share of cherries, apples, hay or whatever other produce was yielded. 

This explains the names of a couple of streets in the village that had intrigued me – Chriesilöserstrasse , Heulöserweg and Heulösergangstrasse. “Chriesi” is the Swiss word for cherry (Kirsche in High German), Heu is hay. “Löser”(cognate with English “lot”) was a portion of land allotted by drawing lots (i.e. an allotment) to those members of the community who possessed certain civil rights. Those areas which in the 18th century served as cherry orchards and hayfields are now completely built up, but the memory remains in the street names and the annual distribution of free apples among those who are legally citizens of Bad Ragaz. Saturday morning, between 8.30 and 11.30, we’ll all be queuing up at the organic fruit farm in the Heulöser – not for our portion of hay, but for apples.

*The idea of Ortsbürger is difficult to render in English. This article in Wikipedia which calls it a “Citizens’ Community” may help or may leave you even more confused.ürgergemeinde  

Autumn in the Air

The Walensee must be one of Switzerland’s most picturesque lakes: not really very big or famous, but the rocky cliff face of the Churfirsten mountains plunges dramatically into its clear blue waters. At the eastern end, the shore has been beautifully landscaped into parkland and a playground for children. On the lower slopes of the mountains, before they rise in sheer granite cliffs, are vineyards, the vines currently beginning to change colour and laden with heavy clumps of dark purple grapes almost ready for harvesting. In a week or so, these trees will also be blazing red and gold.

The day after I took these photos, the weather had changed and so had the mood of the lake, reflecting a more ominous sky and throwing up plenty of driftwood, including some impressively sized tree trunks.

This little church perched atop a steep hill always makes me smile: and I admire the tenacity and endurance of those who presumably used to have to walk up to it. That would be beyond me nowadays!

It would seem I’m not the only one smiling. A felicitous moment when two paragliders aligned in just the right spot as I raised my iPhone!

Time of day also influences the atmosphere, and to my mind the few minutes of Alpenglüh when the granite face of the mountains to the north-east reflects back the glow of the setting sun rivals the glory of the rainbow.

Finally, today the first snow on these mountains …

Bad RagARTz 2021

One of the many beautifully succinct words in German that have no real equivalent in English is verarschen. The idea is universal: mischievously or maliciously ridiculing someone pretentious, by appearing to take their pretentions seriously. The root of the verb is “Arsch” (arse) so it isn’t a very polite word, but it is absolutely appropriate – at least in my humble opinion – for much of the art currently being exhibited here in my village of Bad Ragatz under the title of “Bad RagARTz”. I submit that it would be more appropriate to write that as “Bad Rag Arts”.

The exhibition is a triennial event, and the sculptures comprising this year’s offering have been on show since May.  It involves a lot of money so has to be taken seriously. There are 400 works on show this year, by a total of 83 artists, making it the biggest open-air sculpture exhibition in Europe, and it certainly has been attracting lots of interest judging by the large numbers of people wandering around singly or in groups. Hopefully, our local economy has been benefiting from these. It needs an uplift in these sad Covid times. You can see some of the exhibits if you google Bad Ragartz 2021 and click on images.

I have passed by a number of the sculptures on my regular visits ”downtown”, as they are scattered all around the village as well as throughout our lovely parks. In fact, I integrated myself into one of them, a group of three female figures sitting on a bench (benches are becoming a theme with me!) with just enough room for me to sit and eat my ice-cream cone. An amusing and instructive experience: some passers-by didn’t notice me at all, others did a double-take – some even came back to make sure I was real – whilst others grinned and even made comments (all positive, I’m glad to say).

A chainsaw well used by this artist

Yesterday morning I took advantage of a friend’s visit to spend an hour or so looking closely at the sculptures in the nearby Kurpark (spa gardens). We both share the simple opinion that a true work of art should speak for itself and not need a lengthy explanation, although you can sign up and pay for a guided tour if you feel that some of the exhibits are beyond your comprehension. Or if you want to appear intellectual rather than confessing that you are a philistine.

My friend summed up her impression in four words: “The Emperor’s new clothes!” Mine was expressed in one: “Verarschung!“   

Well, that was perhaps too harsh. We picked out two or three works that we admitted we would allow onto our own private properties if we had sufficient space to display them adequately, and a couple that we admired for the artistry involved, but the overwhelming majority of what we saw was disappointing. There’s always a certain amount of humour represented in the show, happily, and even if we are admittedly unable to appreciate so-called artworks inspired by the school of Josef Beuys and apparently aiming at the Turner Prize, this triennial event does provide food for thought and conversation and I’m sure the local dairy shop has made a killing on its artisanal ice-cream, produced in a wide range of delicious flavours and sold at 3.50 fr a scoop.   

Uncle Harry Pops Up Again!

Previous posts about Uncle Harry:

My cousin in Sheffield has found an old photo of six men in crumpled suits lounging on some rocks, with the words “Sunday afternoon in Taltal” on the back. Taltal is in Chile, so this probably relates to my mother’s uncle, Harry Green. It also raises a lot of questions! 

The port of Taltal became famous for its copper mines in the mid 19th century, and later for its nitrate mines which were in operation until about 1930, so probably the men in the photo were employed at such a mine. What year is this? Which one is Harry? Is one of the others his brother-in-law Walter Evans, a turner, who went with him in 1914?

Nowadays, we tend to forget how long such a voyage would take in the first two decades of the last century, especially before the Panama Canal opened in August 1914. Steam ships travelled at a rate of 13 to 20 knots, and those going to and from England had to round Cape Horn, so the voyage could easily last up to three months depending on the conditions. I know that Uncle Harry made at least 3 trips to northern Chile on cargo ships between 1910 and 1920, but I haven’t been able to find any record of his departure from England in those years so don’t know how long he stayed each time. Harry wasn’t a tourist, that’s for sure, and probably was there for a year or more, working and earning a good salary. He is listed as a blacksmith on his return both from  Valparaiso on 12 December 1910 and from Taltal on 27 November 1914, and as a spring smith on his return from Mejillos on 16 November 1920.  

SS Ortega, a steamship of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, launched in 1906, scrapped in 1927. (Credit: Wikipedia) Uncle Harry returned to Liverpool on her in 1920.

In addition to these confirmed trips, I found a Mr H Green, engineer (no further details), who was a passenger on the SS Victoria, a ship that left Liverpool on 24 May 1906 bound for Taltal – is this our Harry Green, and is this how he set out to make his fortune? Harry wasn’t an engineer (which in those days referred to a man who drove or operated an engine) but as a smith he probably could turn his hand to driving steam engines, so we can’t rule out this possibility. If so, and this was his first trip to Chile, did he stay there from 1906 until 1910? 

There’s also a record for a man called Harry Green on a ship leaving Liverpool bound for Taltal in 1911 but I have no other details about him, either. Was this also Uncle Harry? If so, did he then stay there until 1914? That might explain why I haven’t found him in the 1911 census. Well, it’s taking a long time, but little by little, pieces of this jigsaw puzzle are coming together and slowly filling in the blanks.

Four Generation Family Outing

We did it! Actually managed to get most of the clan together up a mountain, and have a wonderful four-generation time together celebrating three birthdays (13, 31 and 80) with exhilarating rides on the Floomzer summer toboggan run. This is a 2-kilometre track on the Flumserberg mountain that descends 250 m in a series of tunnels, curves, bridges, waves and 360-degree circles in a 2-person toboggan at speeds of up to 40 kmh. Watch this YouTube video for a taste of the fun! Four of the six adults and four of the five kids were game for this adventure – Great-granny managed two descents, but the others did it four times and we all lived to tell the tale, grinning like Cheshire cats as we came away. 

That was really a super birthday present, but it then continued with another ride in a cable car for lunch up at the Panorama Restaurant at the top of the mountain, where the kids had fun on life-sized mechanical ponies.

The sign said that riders up to 100 kg could ride on these, so my grandson-in-law (celebrating his 31st birthday) couldn’t resist. He may be 2 m tall (7 feet) but he’s under 100kg! The kids also loved a raft they could pull across a shallow pond – of course, the littlest one had to miss her step and land in the water, but luckily it was only knee-deep and her pants had a zip around the leg just above the knee, allowing them to transform from trousers into shorts. 

Her boots were wet, but being Swiss she was happy to run around barefoot at first. Since we had three dogs with us, their owners had brought a supply of plastic poop-bags, and two of these made excellent substitutes for socks. So she was able to do the little hike after lunch with dry feet.

I haven’t been able to hike in the mountains now for a very long time, and am not expecting to be able to do any strenuous trails in future so have been missing that experience. However, this was really only a stroll along a fairly level path, with the extra advantage of being a very pretty walk around a large knoll covered in millions of glorious alpine flowers and offering magnificent views. Apart from the ubiquitous cows and calves, we even saw marmots running around on the hillside below us.

The three older children and their long-legged uncle took the high road over the top and met us halfway, then retraced their steps while we completed the circle below, arriving all together at our starting point. The views were breathtaking, and we could see the clouds rolling in, first big white billows then grey, getting darker and darker as we returned to the cable car for the descent, goodbye hugs and the trip home.

We were very blessed. It almost didn’t happen: the weather forecast had been bad, and we knew that a thunderstorm was due in the afternoon, but the weather clerk smiled on us and held the storm back till we had left. And it was a short storm, followed by a rainbow. All in all, just a perfect day. And we are all very, very happy and thankful.

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 5

(Continued from

Towards the end of my time with IBO, I was also sent to inspect a few schools that had applied to participate, and to assess whether they had adequate facilities. Two of these were in Barcelona, where we already had one participating school, so I visited all three. The heads of these schools were all keen to make a good impression on me so I was wined and dined and introduced to Barcelona nightlife. Another was on Lake Como. They were so busy showing me around and giving me a huge lunch that we were late leaving and I arrived in Milan airport after my plane had left. Luckily I was able to get a seat on a plane to Zurich with a connection to Geneva so I made it home in time for bed.

As I was responsible for schools, I was sometimes visited unexpectedly and spontaneously by students or parents, who didn’t always grasp that I might not be available to see them without an appointment. One youth who walked unannounced into my office told me he had dropped out of school in Germany just before doing his Abitur, and had ambitions to be a sculptor. As he poured out his story to me, I referred him to the Ecole Autogérée in Geneva, which was a self-supporting alternative education project mainly targeting dropouts, and thought no more of it. It was obviously the right solution; he adopted me as a kind of godmother, and came by at irregular intervals over the next three years to report on his progress. Eventually, he gained his Diploma and a place at university. To show his gratitude, he brought me a very nice chunky drinking glass.

Another day, I was visited by an elderly German, a tall, imposing looking gentleman with a limp, who expressed some concerns about his daughter who was studying at Atlantic College. I was getting tired of wealthy, self-important parents trying to influence the examination results by ingratiating themselves with me, and gave him short shrift, explaining politely but rather curtly that he should discuss these matters with the head of his daughter’s school. When I mentioned his visit at our coffee break, and disclosed his name, the reaction from my older colleagues, who had first-hand adult experience of WW2, was shock and awe.

“Don’t you know who that was?” they asked. I confessed my ignorance.

Axel von dem Bussche was the man who tried to assassinate Hitler! And he used to be headmaster of Salem School! Why on earth didn’t you ask him to join us for coffee?”

I felt rather embarrassed at not having recognised my distinguished visitor, but I appreciated his gentlemanly deference towards me, especially the fact that he hadn’t tried to put any pressure on me. His daughter did get her diploma, I believe by her own efforts, with no intervention from on high.

After the participating schools had agreed to contribute to the funding of the IB, an annual Heads’ Conference was set up. Once again it fell to me to organise this, and thus I also got to know the principals of the schools quite well. IB in those days was very much like a friendly international club, rather than an examination board.

A wonderful moment occurred during a Heads’ Conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, when the principal of an International School in Kerala, India, ran into the Sri Lankan IB Coordinator of a Geneva school. A double take, and then a hug: both men had studied together many years before, had lost touch, and had no idea that their paths were about to converge again. These two self-contained, respectable gentlemen, now in their forties, stood before me like two five-year-olds, with tears of joy running down their faces. Their stories of how they came to be where they were at that point would need a whole book to itself.

After a meeting in snowy Vienna in January 1979, one headmaster commented that it would be nice to choose a warmer venue next time, maybe in the South Seas. I enthusiastically agreed, and a few weeks later received a letter from him on IB matters, ending with the words “keep your grass skirt pruned!” As the post circulated among us all at that time, the remark caused a certain amount of speculation at our morning coffee session.  

In 1979 I had a number of IB conferences to organise and attend, where I discovered that I could translate simultaneously as well as consecutively between English and French. This skill came in useful a few years later, when I set up my own translation/interpreting agency. I enjoyed these conferences, where I was doing what I was good at, and my work was appreciated by the heads of schools, examiners and various teachers who attended. But 1980 and 81 also saw some internal upheavals in the IBO.

When Ruth retired in 1980, I was nominally “promoted” and given another misleading title, Executive Secretary, but I was still doing the same work. This was the beginning of the technology revolution. In 1980 the Geneva office acquired a PC and a young Vietnamese woman was appointed to operate it and adapt procedures for computerisation. We also got a new-fangled fax machine – a huge, unwieldy monster that augured things to come. Negotiations began for the Geneva office to move to a new site in Grand-Saconnex. I was open to the new technology, and eager to learn how to use a computer (which I did in November 1981) but I was very unsure what role the Geneva office was going to play in the IBO and what my own position was likely to be in future.

Finances were always an important issue. The Organisation had been accused of elitism, a result of the careful vetting of schools approved to participate. This had been necessary in the early years, when the IBO was working to build up a reputation for excellence, but now the Diploma was well recognised by most countries and universities, and the net was widened to include institutions that were explicitly run for profit, as well as the original not-for-profit schools. As the Organisation began to expand, and more funds became available, two important posts were created and filled by people from outside of IB: Director of Examinations and Director of Curriculum. These two newcomers were soon causing hefty ripples in our small pond by making very drastic but much needed changes. No more donkeys in bathrooms: henceforth, IBO was to be fully professional.

It was decided that the entire examinations operation should be transferred to the UK, where overhead costs were lower than in Switzerland. Languages A and B continued to be administered from Southampton whilst the rest of the examination operation was transferred from Geneva to offices known as IBEX. These were initially in Southampton, then London and later, chiefly for financial reasons, on the premises of Bath University. At that point, Languages A and B were also incorporated into IBEX so the staff of the London and Southampton offices had either to leave or move. Plans were made to hold additional November examinations for schools in the southern hemisphere, and Spanish became a third working language. The number of staff increased greatly, and everything was totally reorganised. That was the end of the IBO as I had known it.

Moreover, in mid 1981 my husband took a job in the canton of St Gallen, and we went to live in a small rural village at the opposite end of Switzerland. The IBO was reluctant to let me go, so we agreed I’d work partly from home and commute (a five-hour journey each way), spending 4 days a week in Geneva, staying in a hotel. That was not as easy as it sounds, even though I had been able to dictate the terms of my job – the two places were so different it was like going to the Moon and back.

The Palais Wilson was on the edge of Geneva’s red light district. Economy was still IBO’s watchword, so for the first week of my commuting, I was booked into a cheap hotel a hundred metres or so away down the rue des Pâquis, which seemed innocuous enough. However, during my first night there I realised from the constant noise and banging of doors that it was a maison de passe, so in spite of its cheapness I insisted on removing to a more respectable place just around the corner. This was more expensive but also more salubrious – and above all, quieter – but my commute was not a satisfactory arrangement from a family perspective. At the end of October 1981, I finally cleared out my office in the Palais Wilson and started a PR job in Zurich.

However, that wasn’t the end of my connection with the IB. In 1982 I went on to lecture at the Handels- und Dolmetscherschule in St Gallen. For some time, I had been contributing items to the multiple choice papers in English, French and German B, which I could now trial with my students. Tom Carter asked me to continue with that, and I also took on the task of oral examiner in these languages at Geneva and Munich International Schools for the next few years. This kept me in touch with some of the friends I had made in the IBO, and allowed me to attend some language examiner meetings in Bath, where IBEX was installed by then. My official relationship with the IB finally ended in about 1986. It had been ten very interesting years in the development of the Organisation, which had become a totally different entity from the small, intimate, artisanal enterprise I first experienced in 1976.

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 4

(Continued from

I must apologise if I appear to be name-dropping unnecessarily. My brief at the IB was basically to link the ideas and visions being floated by some of the most brilliant brains in international education with the day-to-day experience of teachers endeavouring to implement those principles in the classroom. Inevitably, my humble path crossed the vast highways of those exalted minds, who inhabited very human bodies, and I was privileged in that respect. I’m pleased to find so much about them on the Internet. But many of those labouring in classrooms around the world were equally inspiring, and I also consider it a privilege to have been on friendly terms with many remarkable people at all points on the educational spectrum.

I never discovered why my title was Registrar. I never received a job description. I replaced two people, one of whom dealt with examiners and the other with schools. My task was basically liaison with both examiners and schools plus all school-related business including information, documentation and conferences. During my five years, the number of schools quintupled, so clearly the job also evolved into something quite different from how it started out.

It was made clear from the beginning that there was no money for a secretary for me, and I would have to do my own typing. Innocently, I looked forward to a nice, stress-free eight-to-five job. I was provided with a state-of-the-art IBM Executive electric typewriter, with proportional type. That was quite complicated, because if you made a mistake, and had to backspace to overwrite (after blanking it out with Tippex) the number of times you hit the backspace key depended on the width of the letter. Only one backspace was needed for ‘i’, two or three for most other letters, but ‘m’ and ‘w’ required four. A good typist produced documents that looked almost as if they were printed, and these machines were used to type the examination papers, Diplomas and Certificates as well as all the literature that was photocopied and sent to schools. I spent most of my first week trying to produce a respectable bilingual copy of a circular to schools, wasting paper, typewriter ribbon and bottles of Tippex, before I mastered my Executive. I never worked eight to five.

IBM Executive typewriter. Photo credit: Wikipedia

My predecessor who dealt with the examiners had been an excellent typist and had also typed out most of the exam papers and Diplomas, hence the Executive typewriter. I pointed out that with my miserable typing skills, it would be a waste of money to employ me doing that when my talents obviously lay elsewhere. Thanks to my dactylographic ineptitude, I was spared the tedium of typing out exam papers, Diplomas and Certificates, but I still had to write several letters a day as well as translating, typing and photocopying circulars and preparing the handbook of instructions for the teachers implementing the programme in the schools.

Not long after I started we had an invasion by a group of experts from Sheffield University who had been called in to do a feasibility study on the IBO and make suggestions for an efficiently run administration. There had been a crisis over the funding of the IB project, which was still in its infancy, and UNESCO had backed out. Now the number of participating schools was increasing and they were being called upon to make a financial contribution: it was therefore vital that the organisation was seen to be organised in deed as well as in name. Tasks, roles and systems needed to be examined and defined. Obviously, in that first month I had no idea of what my job actually entailed so whatever information I provided was probably worthless. By the time the feasibility study was produced, it bore little resemblance to the actual (dis)organisation. 

Since my original mandate had included liaising with the Chief Examiners to chivvy them into producing examination papers on time, one of the first things I did in October 1976 was to go with Gérard and Ruth to the Chief Examiners Meeting in Oxford, an excellent opportunity to meet all the main people involved in creating the examination. It turned out later that I was too busy with other things to be involved in much examiner chivvying.

Owing to the need to watch the pennies, the cheapest flights available were booked for us from Geneva to London and we then took the train to Oxford. The flights in question went at an inconvenient time and included an overnight stay in a budget hotel. We didn’t need the hotel, and managed to get to Oxford on time, where we stayed at St Anne’s College. A year or so later, however, my flight was delayed and I didn’t arrive in London till late. The last train to Oxford had gone, so I was obliged to use my voucher for the hotel. This was an experience! I was put in a room with six beds, all occupied by complete strangers, male and female mixed. The sound of snoring and the rich smells made sleep difficult, and I was glad to arrive at St Anne’s just after breakfast the next morning.  

St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, Photo credit Wikipedia

Shortly before or after the 1976 Chief Examiners meeting, money was found to allow D from the Southampton base to visit Geneva for a few days for an orientation meeting. She stayed with Ruth to save hotel costs and was keen to explain to me, the newcomer, how the languages operation in Southampton worked and what I would need to do to collaborate with her. However, there was a misunderstanding since I was told that she was there to liaise with Ruth and have a relaxing break, and I wasn’t to bother her with any work, so I kept out of her way. Eventually she managed to pin me down and clarify why she had come. We were about the same age, had much in common and got along very well. She also filled in the 10% of the information missing from Ruth’s briefings. And I got an excellent overview of how Languages A and B were administered.

There was a wonderfully convivial atmosphere in the IBO at that time. It was a rather unconventional and idealistic idea that appealed to rather unconventional and idealistic individuals, and many gave of their time voluntarily. It was also very useful for me at this juncture to meet my administrative colleagues in England who were also involved in the nitty-gritty work of running the operation. It was no use claiming that we were honours graduates with professional academic experience and hence above menial tasks. We were all having to roll up our sleeves and do our own typing, filing, cutting and pasting, photocopying, trouble-shooting, passing on critical information to those who needed it and generally picking up the pieces and implementing the brilliant ideas being generated in the airy-fairy realms of academic Utopia above us. The IB may have appeared to glide along with swan-like calm, but we were the feet paddling crazily below the surface.

The number of schools approved to participate in the IB multiplied quite quickly from about thirty when I started, and it rapidly became apparent that dealing with them occupied me full time even after I got my African secretary, later replaced by my lovely Irish girl. This meant that I had less and less to do with the physical production of the examinations, which suited me well. As a former teacher, my interests lay in curriculum development. A lot of emphasis was placed on the fact that the IB was not just an exam but a programme, and so a great deal of information was constantly being exchanged between the organisation and the schools about implementing the curriculum as well as procedures for registering for the exams.

The IB Diploma required candidates to take examinations in 6 subjects, plus submit an extended essay, follow a course in Theory of Knowledge and be involved in CASS activities (Creative. Artistic, Social Services, Sports). Very bright students might be permitted to take seven subjects. Many schools would ask for clarification on these requirements, and I would be asked for instance whether knitting could be included in the Art course, or if an Australian student could submit a composition for didgeridoo as part of his music syllabus.

On one occasion, I was asked if a particularly gifted Scandinavian girl could take eight subjects. I consulted the oracle about this, and the consensus was no, she shouldn’t focus so much on academic work but invest her spare time in her CASS activities. The girl, annoyed, took seven subjects for her IB Diploma, and if I remember correctly she gained maximum points. I happen to know, however, since she was a contemporary of my daughter at the International School of Geneva and one of my husband’s students, that she also took a few A-levels at the same time and obtained excellent results in those. She would undoubtedly have managed eight or even nine subjects, though they wouldn’t have fitted on the Diploma transcript! She is now a professor at Oxford University. 

My job was not made easier by the fact that I would sometimes get letters from several different teachers within a particular school all asking for similar information, and it was clear that some circulars sent to schools stopped at the Principal’s office and didn’t filter down, so at my suggestion each school appointed one person to be IB coordinator who would ensure that information was passed on within the school as required. This simple solution made things much easier and a pleasant aspect of my job was that I was able to build up friendly personal relations with these coordinators. Around the same time, my typing skills having vastly improved, I introduced a monthly bulletin in English and French containing all the updated information needed by the coordinators and teachers. This replaced the previous unsatisfactory system of circulars sent at irregular intervals, some of which never arrived and the schools didn’t know they were missing.

As the IB expanded, a regional office was set up in New York to serve the North American schools and others followed in Manila then Singapore for southeast Asia, and Paris for France. The London office also served as a regional office for schools in the UK and northern Europe. I was responsible for the liaison with these regional offices which took some of the burden from my shoulders as far as the schools were concerned.

We had no subject officers in those days so I was also involved in organising curriculum conferences in various disciplines, for which I had to prepare all the working papers and write the reports. Again, although it meant a lot of typing, cutting, pasting and photocopying, as well as licking envelopes, I enjoyed this area of my job as it also took me to most of these meetings. I got to know many teachers in the various schools in addition to the examiners, which made it easier for me to advise and inform on a personal basis. My own teaching experience was useful in many ways. A side effect was that I also learnt a great amount of maths, geography, history, biology etc. Economics was the only subject that totally baffled me.

The only field I didn’t deal with was Languages A and B, which was a complicated and highly specialised area taken care of by D in Southampton. An exception to this was the Arabic examiner, who was an interesting character based in Geneva. He had developed a scheme for towing icebergs from Antarctica in order to irrigate the Sahara – this was before climate change became a global issue – which he had presented to the UN, but I don’t think anything came of it. He would come to my office to check the papers very scrupulously because the photocopier had a bad habit of adding spots that could change the meaning of words in Arabic. He was a small, mouselike man, and would sit there reading through the paper and declaiming it all aloud, painting out unwanted dots with Tippex or adding them with a black biro, till he was satisfied it was perfect. Then he would bow, say “Adieu, Madame,” and scamper out.

I certainly couldn’t complain that my job was in any way boring!

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 3

(Continued from

Our daily routine in the Geneva office started at 8 am and included an important coffee break at about 10 am, when we all met together to discuss whatever business had come in the mail or by phone (there were no e-mails, or other electronic means of communication in those days) and generally catch up on what each of us was doing. Visitors might drop in at these coffee breaks: Alec or Robert if they were in Switzerland, or eminent members of IB Council or Executive Committee such as John Goormaghtigh, colleagues from the IBE in the Palais Wilson annex who allowed us occasionally to use their Telex for urgent communications, and also sometimes examiners or teachers from local participating schools or far flung parts who happened to be visiting Geneva, and occasionally a student wandered in by chance.

These were easy-going egalitarian sessions, with no one pulling rank. Whoever was there spoke their mind freely, and there was mutual respect for one another’s opinions, whether DG, professor or student. Usually, in IB administrative matters a course of action would be decided by consensus although this often involved a stand-off between Gérard Renaud and Ruth Bonner, who would argue in circles until finally each was representing the viewpoint originally defended or proposed by the other, whereupon they would agree on a compromise.

Ruth was responsible for the day-to-day office management, her inefficiency matched only by her energy and charm. She was successful in hiding her inefficiency from all but those directly affected by it, and it was her charm and energy that aroused general admiration. I wasted several hours in my first weeks owing to Ruth’s inadequate explanations of what I needed to do. She had a knack of giving 90% of the required information and withholding the essential 10% that would ensure the task was done correctly. This caused a lot of extra work, particularly when Ruth and her daughter were sent off to explain to the programmers what the criteria were for the computer printouts needed by schools and examiners. Neither of them had an analytical mind, and it was several years before the printouts contained all the information required, by which time IBO had its own computers and IT experts.

Producing the annual examination was also Ruth’s domain. When I arrived in 1976, the system was as follows: the Chief Examiner in each subject finalised the papers at all levels and the examination papers were typed on typewriters in the Geneva office by whoever was available. The examinations were then translated into English or French, depending on the language originally used, since all papers had to be in both languages. This occasionally challenged us: I remember on one History paper, there was a question about “la bataille d’Angleterre” which stumped the English translator, too young to remember the Battle of Britain, and sometimes there were difficulties with British and American usage. The translations had to be proofread and corrected as necessary by a native speaker proficient in the particular subject, usually an assistant examiner.

The Chief Examiner would proofread the papers and send them back for correction, and they would be photocopied according to the numbers needed for each school. The copies were then put in a sealed envelope with instructions for the invigilators (which the Americans called proctors) and the name of the school, subject and level written on the envelope. Then they were despatched to schools all over the world from the Post Office in the basement of the Palais Wilson.

This worked well enough with the small numbers involved in the pilot project, but once there were more than three dozen participating schools the system was stretched to its limits. As more and more schools joined, it became increasingly obvious that not only was more personnel needed, but that the entire system needed an overhaul. However, we were all too busy to sit down and figure out better ways of doing things. Ruth summed it up: “No time to be efficient!”

It was all very hectic, and had to be squeezed into a very tight time frame. Casual help was hired, usually students, to do the donkey work of photocopying, collating, stuffing envelopes, wrapping and tying parcels (the Swiss Post Office at that time demanded that parcels be finished with string tied in a bow – knots would be refused!) etc. The only space available for them to work was in the storage rooms – former bathrooms – and there was lots of galloping up and down the corridors at this time of year. It was Tom Winnifrith*, Chief Examiner for English A, who first referred to the exams as depending on the work of “donkeys in bathrooms”.

After each exam, schools mailed parcels of scripts to examiners (who could be anywhere in the world), these were marked, graded and moderated, and results came in by post or phone. Most chief examiners were prompt with this, but one or two informed us of the grades only at the last minute, and I remember sitting writing these in by hand on the computer printouts as the chief examiner for chemistry dictated them to me over the phone. Then finally the diplomas and certificates were typed out by IBO staff and despatched to the schools. This also had to be done to a very tight schedule, since European universities demanded results before the end of July, otherwise students weren’t placed. Everyone put in a lot of overtime.

Computers were not easily available in the seventies, and PCs were still being developed. We bought time from the mainframe computer at the ILO (International Labour Office), as there was no question of having one of our own. Everything had to be done manually. The school submitted a form for each student with the subjects at each level, and these were punched onto cards by bored girls working like automata. The computer printed out concertina lists of entries per candidate by school, which I sent to the schools to check. I then had to make a list of amendments, which were fed into the computer, which printed out another set of concertinas with the entries in each subject by school. Once this was approved, the Chief Examiner in each subject allocated schools to his assistants, and we sent the candidate lists off to the appropriate assistant.

Finally, when the results came in and had been moderated and finalised, they were again punched by hand onto cards and fed into the computer so that it could produce the last lot of concertina results by school and subject. However, we had to check every single one of these and correct any errors by hand. By 1978 the computer was also printing the Diplomas and Certificates which had previously been typed. But even with the ILO computer, it was still tedious, time-consuming work.

Results were sent by post to schools all over the world followed by the parcels of Diplomas and Certificates, and in some cases took two weeks or more to arrive. In fact, postal delays were one of the bugbears we had to struggle with, as not only were schools located all over the globe but examiners also. A school in India might have to send its candidates’ papers to England, USA, France, and Singapore depending on where the various assistant examiners for each subject were located. In rare cases, we were allowed to use diplomatic bags: this was one of the advantages of being in Geneva, where many diplomats’ children attended the International School. After marking and grading the papers, the assistants had to send the papers – or samples – to the Chief Examiner for moderation, and that could also be on the other side of the world.

It’s hard to believe that the IB was such a success given the constraints and circumstances we were working under. We did have electric typewriters – golf ball typewriters had come in by the end of the seventies, a very useful advance – plus the photocopying machine, and we used a great deal of Tippex, scissors and glue. Communications on a global scale went via snail mail and telephone or – in urgent cases – the IBE telex. The logistics were unbelievable, especially considering that some schools and examiners were in remote locations. Yet examination papers, audio cassettes and scripts winged their way around the world in jiffy bags and parcels sealed by yards of brown sticky tape.  Examinations were held as scheduled, Diplomas and Certificates received in time. Universities accepted our students, and schools were clamouring to join the club.

* Dr Tom Winnifrith Sr, father of the journalist (, in the 1970’s a delightfully eccentric professor of English at Warwick University, who always looked as if he had spent the night under a bridge, and devoted his spare time to studying the Vlachs in Greece. “The Vlachs, History of a Balkan People”by TJ Winnifrith
See   and  .