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 …

The Day I Touched Heaven

“Hi, Jack!” said Bill the mechanic as he crawled out from under the car. Then, with a wave in my direction, “Is this your latest little grease monkey?”

I wasn’t sure about being called a monkey and hid behind my Grandad Jack’s trousers, watching Bill warily. When my mother called me a monkey, it didn’t bode well.

“He’ll do,” replied Grandad, patting my shoulder. “My best little helper. Thought I’d give him a taste of real garage life and show him where I used to spend my time. How’re you getting on without me?”

“Better than ever,” came the ironic reply. “Get things done quicker without you messing ‘em up!”

I was indignant on Grandad’s behalf, but he just laughed and punched Bill lightly in the chest.

“I have to see a man about a dog,” Bill said. “Can you keep an eye on things for a few minutes?”

When Bill had left, Grandad and I looked around the workshop, which had been his livelihood until his retirement. Suddenly, we heard the roar of a car engine outside and then it stopped. We stepped outside and I saw the most wonderful sight in the whole of my five years of existence: I discovered later it was called an “E-type” but in that moment it was like standing next to a dark green space rocket.

A young man climbed out, handed the keys to Grandad and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow. There’s a knocking I don’t like, hope you can fix it.” Then he turned and walked off.

Grandad looked at me, and I at Grandad.

“Well now,” said Grandad. “He gave me the job, didn’t he? Get in, lad! Let’s see what’s wrong with this little monster.”

I was a little doubtful. After all, Grandad had retired. But he was right, wasn’t he? The young man had asked him to fix it. So I did as I was told and scrambled into the passenger seat. I couldn’t see through the windscreen, but that didn’t matter. The car felt and smelt like heaven. Grandad got in next to me, turned the key in the ignition, and off we went. I thought the engine sounded like the greatest orchestra in the universe as we drove down the road and then – onto the motorway! Oh joy, oh bliss! Grandad put his foot down and invisible hands pushed me hard back in my seat as we whooshed along at the speed of light barely touching the tarmac. Then he braked hard, we left the northbound carriageway and turned back, southbound. The motor roared, the world zoomed past and I was in paradise.

Finally, Grandad drove us back to the garage and stopped the car outside the workshop. Bill was waiting for us.

“You should have a look at the carburettor,” Grandad said. Bill nodded.

“I might have known!” he grinned.

I looked around, a little less shy than before.

“Is the dog OK?” I asked. For a moment Bill looked puzzled, then he grinned again.

“Oh yes, sonny. The dog’s fine.”

“Come on,” said Grandad. “Let’s get some fish and chips on the way home.”

That was the best day of my life.

A Bibliophilic Dilemma

While crocheting and knitting, we are listening to audiobooks and podcasts, of which my daughter has an inexhaustible supply to match her yarn stash, but otherwise – I’m on the horns of a dilemma:

To buy or not to buy? That is the question facing me right now, as I peruse tantalising book reviews, knowing that I really do have time and leisure to read those books, as well as online accounts that would download them onto my iPad in seconds or deliver them to my door in days. On the other hand, there are also a number of bookcases scattered around this little house holding an eclectic accumulation of books that I haven’t read before, or else so long ago that I’ve forgotten what’s in them.

Dictionaries, reference books, historical tomes, travel guides, encyclopaedias, novels, humorous fiction, thrillers, sailing manuals and books relating to various hobbies and handicrafts, recipe books, all in a variety of languages … we could still open a library, in spite of a good clear-out a few years ago when we dropped off a whole load in the cage outside the village shop, which offers free reading matter to anyone interested: a case of one’s man trash being another man’s treasure.

Some of our collection came from my parents, books I have known since my early childhood, frequently missing a flyleaf because I would draw on any blank piece of paper I came across, undeterred by the smacked bottom this sometimes elicited, and occasionally still containing those early drawings. Old friends, including some strange bedtime reading: when I was about 8, snuggled up on my father’s lap in the big armchair, he would read to me – in instalments – Sir Walter Scott’s epic poems The Lady of the Lake and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Much of it went over my head, but I retained the gist of the story and revelled in the atmosphere of Scottish romance, enjoying the poetic language with its rhymes and rhythms. I can’t imagine any modern child being so enthralled, so maybe I was a weird kid after all.

Of course, what really mattered was that this was my father’s way of showing me affection and my response in kind. He wasn’t a demonstrative man, and I don’t think he ever spoke the words “I love you” but I knew that he did love and cherish me without need of those words. That ancient, revered edition of the complete poetical works of Scott (such tiny print on flimsy pages) is here on the bookcase Dad made. I’ll need a magnifying glass to read those poems again.

Others are paperbacks, dispensable holiday reading, left behind by visitors or family members – we are now four generations, all sharing this holiday home, and most of us are keen readers.

I brought with me the new English version of Temptation by Janos Szekely, admirably translated by Mark Baczoni (see my blog post A Night That Began 700 Years Ago) and on finishing that remarkable page-turner, read one of my daughter’s latest acquisitions, This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter, a fascinating tale of a woman’s travels around Britain discovering sources of wool for her knitting. Sounds peculiar but is actually very informative and interesting.

That was followed by a preposterous and hilarious tale by PG Wodehouse set in 1930’s Brittany called Hot Water that I was reading in bed, and that kept me up an hour later than intended each night till it was finished. In 1930’s terms, this was a hoot!

My daughter is currently deep in the first of a trilogy about early mediaeval Britain by Max Adams which will also be passed on to me in due course, but not yet – so I now have to make my selection for my next book at bedtime, hence my opening question: Do I pick out one at random from those available here, choose one already on my iPad that I haven’t yet read, or order something new online that has been recommended and appeals to me?


I turn to the bookcase next to me as I sit here on the sofa, and spot an ancient leather-bound volume with gilt edged pages that lost its spine a few decades ago. Inside, in my childish writing, I see that I claimed it as no 107 of my personal library. I vaguely remember starting to read this when I was about twelve, but know I never finished it.

Yes, this is my next easy read: John Halifax, Gentleman by Mrs Craik. I have more patience nowadays with 19th century sentimentality than I did in my youth, and now find quaint what irked me then, being better able to appreciate the quality of Dinah Mulock Craik’s writing. And having visited the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire a number of times in my youth (and had Abel Fletcher’s Mill pointed out to me) I can visualise the setting of this story. I know in advance that through all the vicissitudes of John Halifax’s career, moral virtue will triumph and there will be a happy ending: it is a Victorian classic, after all!   Just right for bedtime.

Tuesday 17th March — Sundry Times Too

“Isn’t it wonderful when brothers and sisters get along together in harmony. It’s like a great big chocolate fountain or a party with champagne for everyone!” Psalm 133. OK so that’s a paraphrase and I dare say that there are better ones out there. Yet listening to this Psalm this morning got me wondering. How […]

Tuesday 17th March — Sundry Times Too

I’m reblogging this from Kangerew2, whose insightful reflections have given me much comfort and inspiration over the last few months since I discovered his page.

Repair Your Inner Rainbow

My dreams are sometimes strange, often funny – I woke up roaring with laughter one morning after I had dreamed that Noddy Holder had been elected President of Venezuela. In my dream, I had inquired whether the Venezuelans understood his English (a justifiable question, since Noddy has a broad Black Country accent, not always comprehensible even to other British people) and was told that it didn’t matter, as he spoke fluent Spanish. Where did that come from?? Maybe it’s prophetic – Noddy, as we say in the Black Country, is a bostin bloke and could probably do as good a job as anyone else.

The night before last I dreamed that my Dear Daughter and Son-in-Law came to see me, and I wanted to give them something to take away (possibly my bag of stuff to be recycled – they have obliged me with that before now) but they weren’t able to take it because their car was full, with two very large boxes on the back seat. On reflection, I think these boxes were amplifiers. Anyway, my DD informed me in the dream that they needed these boxes because they were on their way “to repair their inner rainbows”.

The phrase was ringing in my head when I woke up. How do you repair your inner rainbow? Whatever, it sounds very beautiful and inspiring!

A few hours later, I had forgotten my dream. DD and SIL arrived as arranged to go for lunch, but before we left DD produced a large box and a couple of plastic bags.

“Ooh, what’s that?”

“A rainbow for you!”

She was referring to a post I wrote a few years ago, when my granddaughter sent me a box full of wool and yarn to help me with my crochet.

And here was another rainbow in a box – enough to keep me occupied for a few weeks, I imagine! Thank you, this should keep me out of mischief.

It was only after they had continued on their way that I remembered the phrase in my dream. I hope they are having a tranquil weekend, and are able to repair their inner rainbows.

P.S. For anyone who doesn’t know Noddy Holder, he’s the singer of the glam pop group Slade – and if you don’t know Slade, look them up!

Oh – and here’s a recent interview with Noddy. If you really want to know what the poems on my Black Country page should sound like, imagine Noddy reciting them! That’s the accent!


WEF is over, Davos and the surrounding villages can go back to “normal”. Tonnes of hot air spouted, millions of dollars spent – much of it on security and “necessary luxuries”. Climate change was a major topic and the invited speakers’ actions spoke much louder than their words. Especially in their choice of transport.

Greta Thunberg wanted to hike there, but was obliged to take the bus. Donald Trump flew to Zurich in Airforce One, then took a helicopter. His wider entourage presumably travelled by road, and as they were too numerous to fit into the accommodation available in Davos, stayed in various luxury hotels within a 50-km radius. This included our own Grand Resort of Bad Ragaz, where their stay was invoiced at just short of half a million US dollars. Who picks up these bills?

How Greta went home, I don’t know. Probably by public transport again. POTUS, however – or POTENTATE? – went back to Zurich airport by road, accompanied by around 50 vehicles including ambulances, police escorts from several Swiss cantons, anti-terror units, defences against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, and, of course, the press. Naturally, the Autobahn in the direction of Zurich had to be closed for the duration of the convoy’s passage, and who cares what inconvenience that caused. All bridges had to be manned by armed police. Again, who picks up these bills?

Watch this video, and remember that Switzerland is the seventh safest country in the whole world.  

What justification is there for this massive demonstration of this man’s megalomaniac display and utter disregard for his carbon footprint? The epithet that comes to my mind is obscene.

Something is rotten …

… Not necessarily in the state of Denmark, but in the state of confusion on my laptop. My first impulse was to blame WordPress – always the scapegoat – but the White Screen of Death appears only on my Mac, when I try to write or edit. On my tablet and phone I can still get backstage and access all the other things. Just not on the Mac.

However, this isn’t as user-friendly as the laptop, so if anyone out there has any useful advice I’d be very grateful. Presumably, there’s some simple tweak.

The problem is, on my Mac I can load only my posts. Everything else – edit, write, My sites, reader, stats etc – opens a blank screen. I assume it’s a Mac problem because on my iPad and iPhone these are all accessible.

Any ideas, anyone?? Thank you!

Merry Christmas!

According to my stats, I now have over 200 followers, a figure I find hard to believe since it’s always the same faithful few who deign to pass comment. Be that as it may, I can’t let the season pass without wishing everyone who looks in here – whether 1, 2 or 200 of you – a Merry Christmas, frohe Weihnachten, joyeux Noël, buon Natale, legreivlas fiastas da Nadal, feliz Navidad, god Jul ….

May you know the joy, peace and love that are celebrated at this time, and so urgently needed in today’s world.

Georg Friedrich Händel and Isaac Watts expressed it very well: