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  .

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 2

(Continued from

The IBO was a small undertaking in 1976, with about 30 schools participating worldwide, and there was a family-firm feeling about it all. It was in transition from the experimental period to a fully functioning, self-supporting organisation. Internationally, total staff numbered scarcely a dozen! Alec Peterson was Director-General, operating on a part-time basis from a small office in London run by his newly appointed PA factotum. Alec spent much of his time travelling the world publicising the IB, visiting schools and universities, and fund-raising.

The main office was in Geneva, headed by its Director Gérard Renaud, supported by Ruth Bonner (Executive Secretary) and me, with a young French woman (L) combining reception and accounts. We were assisted by 3 or 4 part-time typists, plus an assortment of temporary student helpers during peak times. Geneva produced the examinations and documentation for all subjects other than Languages A and B. These were the responsibility of the lovable, brilliant but quixotic Tom Carter and his staff. Tom was in charge of the Language Centre at Southampton University, where his extremely efficient so-called “research fellow” (who became my good friend D) had brought order into his chaos, dealing with everything to do with languages A and B from a tiny corner of the staff coffee room. The former head of the British School in Montevideo had a miniature office in Buenos Aires from where, among other things, he publicised the IB in Latin America and a North American office was just being set up in New York, with a director plus PA.

It truly was a skeleton staff on a shoestring budget, and every tiny item of expenditure had to be accounted for.

The IB was a ground-breaking project and attracted idealists and visionaries, who tended to be original and somewhat eccentric: educators rather than administrators. Alec Peterson was a tall, lanky Scot with that superior English accent that only Edinburgh and Oxford can produce. With grey hair curling around his collar, an unkempt grey beard and hawk-like nose, he was an imposing figure though usually a bit crumpled from his latest flight, and in true professorial tradition forgetful of minor matters. His secretary frequently received calls or letters from places he had visited on the other side of the world reporting that he had left his glasses or shoes behind, and on one memorable occasion all his dirty laundry, which would be sent on in parcels. He was in his late sixties when I first knew him, having retired from his position as Head of the Education Dept. at Oxford University. He was a wonderful talker and fascinating to listen to.

Both Gérard Renaud and Ruth Bonner had been teachers at the International School of Geneva and, like Alec, were instrumental in the founding of the IB. Gérard was a classical scholar and philosopher, not really cut out for administration, but he was a kind, gentle soul, averse to confrontation and sometimes vacillating when it came to making decisions as he carefully considered every aspect of the issue facing him. I remember on one occasion there was an inquiry from the Vatican, and Gérard was overjoyed to be able to correspond in Latin. He was happiest when he was expounding the ideas and visions animating the IB.

Ruth was a petite firecracker, white-haired and wiry. She was fifty-eight when I first met her, but she had spent much of her life outdoors, particularly on the ski slopes, and her face was tanned and lined so she looked much older. She reminded me of a sandpiper, with a sharp nose and bright inquiring blue eyes, scurrying around with inexhaustible energy.

L, a pleasant French woman about my age, was the only one of us with a secretarial background and originally employed as Gérard’s PA and receptionist, but then she learnt to do the accounts and that became her main field. This allowed her to keep a certain distance from the sometimes chaotic daily events and maintain her sanity. She was a very pleasant, businesslike colleague and a pleasure to deal with.

In addition, a friendly Englishwoman came in part time to deal with jobs like photocopying, packing and despatching whatever needed to be sent out. After I had been with the IBO for a few months, it became clear that more hands were needed. Ruth Bonner’s eldest daughter was brought in as a secretarial assistant for her mother, and I was allocated a part-time secretary, a beautiful young African woman who was a former Miss Rhodesia. She looked like a prettier, softer version of Naomi Campbell, and had a very sweet disposition. That made a total staff of four fulltime and three part-time employees.

Later on, after we had moved downstairs and had more rooms and money available, we were joined by two more British ladies as part-time typists and a middle-aged Swiss woman who was chiefly attached to the photocopier – we had our own Xerox by then. Indeed, by 1980 we had acquired a PC and a computer operator, the Geneva staff had grown to eleven, and there were regional offices in New York, Buenos Aires, Singapore and Paris as well as the London and Southampton bases. By this time, about 150 schools were participating in the IB programme.

Alec retired in 1977 and Gérard Renaud then became Director General. The London office was ultimately taken over by Robert Blackburn, a former teacher at Atlantic College who had been Secretary General for United World Colleges (UWC), and IBO London acquired an extra secretary. Robert had a stately bearing, a very posh English accent, and was proud of his association with Lord Mountbatten, then President of UWC. In fact, some people were convinced he was Lord Blackburn, or at least Sir Robert, he had that aristocratic air about him. When he came to Geneva and introduced himself to my secretary from Limerick, he informed her that he, too, was Irish (he was born in Kilkenny) After he left the room, she turned to me and in her lilting brogue remarked: “He doesn’t sound very Irish!”

He arrived in Geneva late from London one day, and rather breathlessly explained that he had been held up at the airport. Gérard Renaud was most concerned, and made him sit down to recover, even offering him a cognac. Robert was pleasantly surprised and rather bemused until someone realised the misunderstanding and explained to Gérard that it wasn’t a hold-up at gunpoint.

Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 1

Around Easter 1976, disillusioned with my job at a flourishing language school in Geneva, I discovered that the HQ of the International Baccalaureate Office was located in the Palais Wilson, just a few blocks away. One day in early May I walked down the rue Rothschild and into this imposing building with its majestic marble staircase. I climbed up to the top floor, and announced that I was looking for a job. I had no idea what kind of job – I just thought that being trilingual and with a background in international education, I might be useful in some capacity or other.

The Executive Secretary Ruth Bonner, a small white-haired bundle of energy, talked to me.

“Are you a student?” she asked. I was just coming up to my 35th birthday, so I was rather amused at the question.

“No, I’m a language teacher,” I replied. “And I’m looking for a change.”

She went off and came back with Gérard Renaud, the Director. We had a chat and I explained who I was, what my educational interests were and what experience I’d had. He seemed interested.

“Can you type?”

I said I could use a typewriter, picking and pecking, but wasn’t an accomplished typist, mentally cursing the fact that I had never persevered and taught myself to type properly. I pointed out that I definitely wasn’t looking for a secretarial position and they explained that typing skills would be useful, as everyone there – including Gérard – did all their own typing.

“You might be the answer to a prayer,” Ruth told me. “Can you let us have a CV in writing?”

I learnt that 2 people were leaving, and I had picked just the right moment to swan in. I sent in my CV and after they had talked to the Director General, Alec Peterson, I received a letter offering me a job at a reasonable monthly salary, starting on 1 September 1976. I gave in my notice and completed my last assignment there which was devising and running a stage for training teachers of English

When I reported for work at the Palais Wilson in September 1976, I discovered that my job title was Registrar. My office was a light and airy suite on the top floor of the East wing of the building, overlooking the rue Rothschild and the rue des Paquis, consisting of a vast room with a smaller one adjoining and a storage room. Outside my window were the crowns of beautiful plane trees. The dilapidated old building had not yet been restored to the magnificent palace it is today, but it nevertheless retained some traces of its former glory as a grand hotel from the turn of the twentieth century. To reach our offices we ignored the stately central staircase and took a rickety service lift up to our dingy corridor in the attic. 

All the rooms we used as offices had formerly been bedrooms or suites, each with its own bathroom. The sanitary fittings had been removed, except in the bathroom adjoining the room used as Reception, which still had a lavatory and washbasin. The rest were handy storage rooms, each about 10 square metres in size. As befits a luxury hotel of that period, each former bedroom had an inner and an outer door made of solid oak, with a small space between as sound insulation and for privacy. The floors were high quality parquet, scuffed and no longer shiny, but still hardwearing. Many of the rooms had communicating doors between them, lockable from either side.

After WWI, the Palais Wilson had become the home of the League of Nations. Since then it had gone steeply downhill. We shared a corridor in the attic with some people from Unicef, and down below on the ground floor, in a section designed by Le Corbusier as a temporary annex and made mainly of fortified cardboard in a metal frame, was the IBE (International Bureau of Education), belonging to UNESCO. The beautiful Palais Wilson itself was not a protected building, but this ugly, draughty and uncomfortable annex was, simply because it was by Le Corbusier! It was later destroyed by fire, so when it came to restoring the main building in the 1990’s, the annex had fortunately gone.

A couple of years later IBO was able to move down to the first floor where each of the generously proportioned offices – also former bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms – was adorned with an ornate marble fireplace surmounted by a huge gilt-framed mirror labelled “Ligue des Nations”. Here my French windows opened onto a terrace on the portico overlooking the gardens and the lake, with a view towards Mont Blanc.

To be continued …

Nine Years A-Blogging!

Could I possibly have guessed, in September 2011, what the next decade would bring? Not in my wildest dreams! This time last year I was busy reconnecting with family in England, and had no time for any blog posts, so I missed my eighth anniversary. However, I can only echo what I said two years ago in Seven Year Itch and add that 2020 has held even more surprises, as it has for most people I know.

Looking back at my earliest blog posts, it’s clear not only that – although living in the same body (give or take a few million cells) and the same apartment in the same village (which has also grown) – my life has become quite different, and I myself am not the same person. And that isn’t just because I’m nine years older, either, though that is an obvious factor. I can regress even further – twenty, thirty, forty years ago – every decade presents another self. I keep these shoes as a reminder of the person I once was, half a lifetime ago, who I suspect is still in there somewhere! Though I may still be able (just about) to stand up in these, there’s no way I’m going anywhere in them.

So perhaps it’s as well that, instead of keeping a journal, I’ve been recording events, thoughts and feelings here: I am surprised at some of my older posts – I had completely forgotten ever writing them and it’s like reading someone else’s stuff! A different life, a different world. Yet it remains my journey into … age? Maturity? Senescence?

Well, whatever it is, I still have a great deal to be thankful for and I have no cause for complaint. Maybe these “fat years” are coming to an end and some “lean years” lie ahead, but for the time being, I’m enjoying the here and now, with all its blessings. And wondering if maybe – after all, with a bit of practice – I might still manage to walk in those red shoes … without breaking my neck!

Le temps retrouvé …

Mnemosyne* has been busy these last two or three weeks, poking about in the ashes I mentioned in my last post but one. This time, with a very long poker.

This week, an e-mail came from the secretary of the alumni association of the Grammar School I attended from the ages of 11 to 18, informing me that a former classmate was looking for me. Would I be interested in contacting him? Wow! After 60 years? Certainly – it’s a wonder we are both still alive and able to communicate intelligibly! So after a little bit of e-mail correspondence I was able to update my app and we could Skype.

Of course, had we bumped into one another on the street we would never have recognised each other. I remembered a rather spotty, skinny dark-haired lad in short grey flannel trousers who was always something of a joker, and here was a grey-bearded retired professor. What he remembered about me exactly, he was too polite to say! Except that I used to wear glasses.

It’s always interesting comparing memories, and I have to think of the song “Yes, I remember it well” from the musical Gigi. Some of the people I mentioned rang no bells at all for him, and some of the events that had made a big impression on him had vanished from my mind. Did we really share a desk at one time? I can only conclude I was being punished for talking in class, and made to sit by a boy instead of one of my girl friends.

He recalled our English literature lessons in the fifth form: “We read Trollope’s book ‘The Warden’ – so deadly boring, put us all to sleep …” and I had to giggle because I suddenly remembered: “Oh yes, we hid alarm clocks around the room set to go off at 15 minute intervals!” Our English teacher was not amused, but here we are, almost 65 years later, still chuckling. I know that was my idea, but I think he also provided a couple of the clocks.

We were to some extent in personal competition, both of us good at the same subjects, and I certainly enjoyed a feeling of triumph on the occasions I got 1 or 2 percent more than he did. He admitted to feeling the same. We both went on to read French at university, and were in fact interviewed and accepted at the same ones, but he went to Leicester and I to Liverpool so after the age of 18 we never saw one another again.

Now, in retrospect we compared the university courses we followed and I must say that I think my course at Liverpool was better than his at Leicester. Funnily enough, we had both applied quite independently to spend our final year in Aix-en-Provence, and in my case that’s what happened. He, however, didn’t. It would have been interesting if our paths had crossed again at that point. We both started off in teaching careers. After university, I went to Germany and eventually Switzerland. He went to France, the States, and back to France where he has now been living for the past 50 years, having taught at the same university for the rest of his working life. Our children are the same age.

So even after a 60-year hiatus, we still have plenty in common to talk about. His wife joined in the Skype conversation, and warmly invited me to go and visit them “when all this Covid stuff is over”. Maybe I will, if I can find a way of getting there!  In the meantime, I’m joining his book club which is now meeting via Zoom. That will help refresh my conversational French. Thank you, Covid-19! And B, if you read this, mille grâces ! A bientôt !

*Greek goddess of memory

Memories Are Made Of This …

A heap of grey ashes, dead and cold, smothering the last embers of a smouldering cinder may yet suddenly be lit up in a flash of flame if someone pokes it, letting in oxygen. So it is with memories. An article on an alumni association website suddenly beamed me back forty years, and people I had long forgotten were resurrected in all their glory in my mind. Events and conversations from decades ago were as clear as yesterday (which nowadays isn’t always as clear as it should be) – literally flashbacks, flashing and flaming images of the past.

I e-mailed a former colleague, who responded instantly, and oh my goodness! How bright and clear were the 1970’s and 80’s to us both! “Do you remember …” “Did you know …” “Who was the person who …” “When did X do that …” “Who said …”

I sat down and wrote a 5,000-word memoir, which I sent to her asking for feedback. It came, yet more oxygen to feed the flame, and my memoir is now over 6,000 words. I could easily have made it 7,000 if I’d added more personally revelatory details but I went through it carefully, removing some of my more caustic comments about former colleagues and references to indiscretions: of course, those were some of the most diverting parts, but I see no point in re-opening old wounds and offending respectable elderly people I have had no contact with for forty years if they should happen to read it. Would they be likely to read it? Many of them, sadly, are dead and gone, but their children are still around. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

Who would be interested in this, anyway? Well, maybe the alumni of the International School of Geneva who subscribe to the website that triggered my reminiscences, and maybe the International Baccalaureate Organisation we worked for, which is vastly different nowadays to what it was then. Perhaps they would be surprised to know from what a tiny sapling that mighty tree has grown.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. My daughter is, of course, always my first port of call: her comment was that it was highly entertaining but not very PC by today’s standards. Hmm, she didn’t see my first draft – that definitely might have upset one or two! I sent my memoir off to both places, and now await the reactions with curiosity. Will anyone react at all? Does anyone there remember me? Just because I remember them doesn’t mean I made any kind of impression in return. We’ll see! I might even serialise my piece here. What do you think?

The Blessing of Good Friends

Lord, thank you for leading me by quiet waters, for feeding me at Your table, and for inviting me to dwell in Your house forever.

Would You please give me opportunities this week to show true hospitality to others and to do it generously, joyfully and without grumbling.

Would You give me grace to embrace interruptions as gifts from You, and help me to make space in my schedule at my table, in my home and my heart for others.


This was one of the prayers in my Sabbath devotional this morning. Just after I had said “Amen”, I received a message on my phone from old friends saying:

“Would you like a “socially distancing” lunch brought to you today?”

IMG_5403Who knew that prayers were answered so rapidly? Especially in this time of isolating, quarantine and shielding! Not only did P and V arrive with a casserole, a loaf of bread, homemade brownies, a hunk of Roquefort cheese and a bottle of red wine, V also did the washing up afterwards! My hospitality consisted of setting the table on my patio, cutting the bread and making the coffee – done generously, joyfully and certainly without grumbling and I definitely embraced this interruption as a gift. It was a lovely surprise, and an opportunity to sit and talk, catch up, and enjoy our friendship. V and I share a birthday and I had also just finished crocheting a lacy scarf, which V graciously accepted as a belated birthday present. We decided this lunch was a belated birthday party. Thank you, Lord!

I see the last few weeks as a very generous and gracious gift from the One who provides. At the end of July my best friend – who lives about 20 km away –  invited me to stay a week with her, which became 10 days, and gave us plenty of time to put the world to rights, watch our favourite TV series on rainy days and enjoy the privilege of swimming and floating around in her private pool on hot sticky days. I was especially grateful that she played chauffeur for me, so I didn’t have to take the train (masks are mandatory on public transport here, but I still don’t like the idea) and also took me to the supermarket so I was able to stock up on food and essentials, instead of having to haul my shopping from the village. Such friends are truly a huge blessing.


Prior to that, I was delighted to be able to enjoy some time with my Dear Eldest Granddaughter and her family. She has four children, aged 3 to 12, and they spent their summer holiday in their caravan on the Bad Ragaz campsite just down the road from my house. This is Heidiland so they were out and about most of the time, but we met up twice for extended meals and the children found their way from the campsite to Granny’s house, so that also gave me a chance to exercise a little hospitality, too!

“Now I’m 12 I’m allowed to drink coffee,” announced my great-grandson S on his arrival.

“Does that mean you would like a cup of coffee, then?”

“Yes please. With lots of milk.”

His five-year-old brother M had a “Granny tea”, and they sat very primly at my table, demonstrating their good manners, but alas, the coffee didn’t meet S’s standards (he prefers Nescafé) and M wasn’t impressed by the biscuits he was offered, so it wasn’t a total success. However, they are very forgiving and promised to give me a second chance some time.


I confess that I was a little sceptical this morning about asking for “opportunities this week to show true hospitality to others” when most people I know aren’t going out – but I was quickly taught a lesson, and now my fridge and freezer are well stocked, so I’m prepared! Who will be my next surprise guest, I wonder?


Matthew 25:40

Facebook seems to be blanking me. Their loss! I’m wondering if I have offended some thin-skinned arbiter of political correctness by my posts and comments, or if my computer is simply getting old and slow like its mama.

Whatever Fb may be feeling, I’ve probably offended at least two old friends, both confessed practising Christians, by commenting on posts they uploaded that shocked me. Is Fb taking their side against me?

The first was a post about Denmark’s policy towards refugees, which is basically that of the Three Wise Monkeys: blind, deaf and mute. Or in practical terms, lock ‘em out, and if they do get in, starve ‘em out. To which I simply wrote “Matthew 25:40” (the reference is to the verse The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’)

The second is a video showing a young woman who identifies herself as Yugoslavian – though she looks far too young to remember any of the events that led to the disintegration of that country – who claims to be warning the world in general and the USA in particular of the dangers of failing to learn from history. The first ten minutes of her impassioned diatribe give a fairly accurate historical account of the fall of Yugoslavia, and exhort the USA to beware of falling into the same traps.

Then she turns to the First and Second Amendments of the Constitution of the USA and my ears pricked up in disbelief. She goes on to conclude, by meretricious and specious arguments, that Donald J Trump is the saviour of the world. I cannot believe that my FB friend has fallen for this, so my comment on her Facebook page – again based on St Matthew –  was to the effect that sending Beelzebub to drive out devils has never worked, and wondering if she has been brainwashed. My friend is probably miffed and now my ex-friend. But I could NOT let that pass.

I find it extremely disturbing that, even as Trump freely provides more and more evidence of his dangerous incompetence, so many American Christians continue to support him. How is it possible? Perhaps I hit on the right analogy in my earlier remarks: the Three Wise Monkeys.