My Russian language course gets under way at RAF North Luffenham - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My Russian language course gets under way at RAF North Luffenham

By the time my Russian course started on 11 October 1976, I had already learned all the Russian letters in their various printed and handwritten forms. Thanks to my part-time study with the Linguaphone Russian Course that I had bought soon after the aptitude test at North Luffenham, and assisted by Vera Ristich, one of the civilian instructors, I could read Russian texts out loud quite well. Our instructors were a mixture of British civilians headed by the one we always referred to as Headmaster, much to his amusement and the disapproval of all the other instructors, and a group of splendid men and women who hailed originally from various eastern European countries and who spoke English as their second or third language. For all I know they were naturalised British citizens but the need to enquire into that never arose and they didn't encourage questions about their past. One of them was the delightful Oleg Grigorievich Kravchenko, a portly gentleman with a ready smile and endless patience - and he certainly needed the latter when teaching us.

The first thing Oleg Grigorievich taught us was how to pronounce his first name correctly. Most English speakers pronounce it wrongly as 'Oh-leg', with the stress on the 'o'. To be correct, the 'o' should be very faint, almost like a very short 'a' (as in English apple) and the stress should be on the second syllable, pronounced with a palatalized 'l' thus: 'alyég'. Oleg Grigorievich did not see the joke when we, rather cruelly, suggested that perhaps he spoke pre-Revolutionary Russian. Incidentally, when addressing him in Russian or English we always had to use both his first name and his patronymic (the Grigorievich part – which means son of Grigori); to miss off the patronymic would have been very disrespectful.

Because of my pre-course study, I started with a slight advantage over my fellow students, but that didn't last more than a few days. I have always, even in French and Latin lessons at school, found it difficult, and tedious, to learn vocabulary. The school method of teaching languages back in the late 1940s had suited me: learning paradigms of conjugations and declensions by heart from written tables (amo, amas, amat; bonus, bona, bonum; and all that). At North Luffenham most of the teaching, and all of Oleg Grigorievich's, was done entirely in Russian. I could not get on with that: I needed to know the grammar rules; simply listening to Russian did not work for me. I delighted in the 'aspects' of Russian verbs. For example, the English sentence 'I went to London' is capable of several interpretations which have to be inferred from the context. The Russian form, or aspect, of the verb 'went' in that sentence precisely indicates whether I went yesterday, a long time ago, regularly, or infrequently, or whether I remained in London when I got there and returned sometime later. Think how useful that is!

I was particularly fascinated by the many Russian verbs of motion. That same English sentence, 'I went to London', merely tells the listener that I went to London at some unspecified time in the past. In Russian, different verbs are necessary to indicate how I went: on foot, by train, by sail, in a car, on a bike, etc. Incidentally, we learned that one has to be very careful using the Russian verb 'to skate' (кататься - katatsya). Changing the first 'т' in the Russian word to 'к' (какаться - kakatsya) changes the meaning to 'to soil oneself' (to put it politely), which is an entirely different sort of motion. We giggled like teenage students when we learned that. Fortunately, I have never had the need to employ either of those Russian verbs - except here!

There were several distractions in quick succession during the year-long Russian language course which made it well-nigh impossible for me to concentrate on learning Russian. The first was when a fellow officer on our course set me up with a blind date. The lady was an RAF widow he knew and the location for the date was a Greek-themed private party in the North Luffenham Officers Mess. I’ll refer to the lady as Veronica to protect her real name for reasons that will become clear. In advance of the party, my friend told me that Veronica was the widow of an RAF officer who had been killed in a flying accident and she had a little boy about two years old. What my fellow officer did not know at the time was that Veronica already knew quite a lot about me and had asked to be invited to the party specially to meet me!

My meeting with Veronica at the party went very well and over the next few weeks we started going out regularly. I never asked her about first husband; the subject simply never came up because at that early stage of our relationship it did not seem important. I knew she would tell me when she wanted me to know. On one of our first meetings post-blind date, I went to her home in Lincoln and stayed the night. I met her two-year-old son and we later went to meet her parents. After several months and many meetings, I asked Veronica to marry me – and she accepted. I then discovered Veronica was a strict Catholic and I had to go through a series of ‘educational’ sessions with her local priest during which I had to sign a document agreeing to bring up the two-year-old boy from her previous marriage “in the faith”. I did not know at that time that I was closely related to a living Irish Roman Catholic bishop!

The second distraction was in early May when I began to feel perpetually mentally tired, physically drained, and unable to concentrate on anything much. I endured it for a couple of weeks before I also developed a sore throat and swollen glands in my neck. By then quite alarmed, I went to see the RAF North Luffenham station doctor. She almost immediately diagnosed that I had glandular fever, an insidious complaint correctly called infectious mononucleosis but sometimes referred to as ‘the kissing disease’ because it is often caused, the MO said, by transfer of infected saliva from another person. I was sent to the RAF Hospital at Nocton Hall, near Lincoln, to give a sample of my blood for testing and a couple of days later the diagnosis was confirmed. The doctor at Nocton Hall confirmed that there is no real cure for glandular fever other than complete rest to help reduce the symptoms. Worryingly, he added that glandular fever was one of those complaints that, once contracted, tended to return at irregular intervals but the good news was that glandular fever is not contagious.

Despite all my efforts, I started to find it very difficult to concentrate on the Russian lessons and I began to lag well behind the others. The staff and my fellow students presumably thought that I was getting lazy, or losing interest in the course, or was paying far too much attention to my fiancée. I was not lazy, and I certainly did not want to fail the Russian course because that would have resulted in the cancellation of my posting to Berlin. I told the course staff and my fellow students that I had glandular fever, the ‘kissing disease’, and that there was no real cure apart from rest and understanding. Far from being sympathetic, they all thought it was hilarious! However, the symptoms soon became worse and I was forced to spend a whole week confined to my bed in the Officers Mess on doctor’s orders. To my dismay, no visitors were allowed – not even Veronica. The MO said that was to permit me to have complete and uninterrupted rest. I imagine my friends were, by then, glad of an excuse to keep well away from me just in case I was contagious!

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