The Little Red Book

The Little Red Book

 

A moment of grace on the way to Compostela

By Canon Jim Foley

Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, could not have known that his Little Red Book, evidently the most studied book in the world during the late sixties, had been anticipated in my primary school as early as 1936. We too had a Little Red Book with 500 words that any self-respecting child was expected to know and to spell correctly by the tender age of seven. Our teacher even anticipated Mao’s iconic gesture by brandishing our Little Red Book high above her head in one hand, while firmly grasping a board ruler in the other. This performance took place first thing on a Monday morning. By way of light relief, on alternative Monday mornings the Red Book was replaced by a mental test at which ten questions had to be answered at the speed of the Hedron Collider. I remember well her voice ringing in my young ears, ‘James Foley, you will not find the answer written on the ceiling’, but I knew, in my heart of hearts, that if it was not written on the ceiling, it was nowhere to be found. There was, however, one pupil in our class who was well able to compete with the Hedron Collider and that was Susan Quinn. How much we all envied her!

 One of the words in our Little Red Book was ‘caoutchouc’. For many years I was convinced that my classmates and I were the only people in Europe who had ever heard of this word or had any idea of its meaning. In fact, there were those in the class who thought that the teacher had made it up. Imagine my surprise when sixty years later, on pilgrimage to Compostela, I chanced upon the garage featured at the head of this essay. There it was in all its glory, in letters a foot high – PNEUS & CAOUTCHOUCS.

I exchanged confidences with the owner of the garage to the effect that I had seen the word before and understood that it was of Latin American origin, probably Quetchuan, and had found its way into the English language as a result of commercial interests. The Larger Oxford English Dictionary offers a definition of the term as ‘ungalvanized natural rubber.’ I chose not to share with him the detail that in Scotland it had come into common parlance as a description of a piece of meat that was less than tender, was as flexible as a piece of rubber and equally unappetizing. Nonetheless, I wondered what the word was doing writ large above his garage door. He simply advised me that it was in common use in France for a car or bicycle tyre, as was the word before it on his notice – ‘Pneu’. This information could prove useful for those who have occasion to change a tyre in France.  On that affable note we shook hands and parted ways, and I spent some time along the Camino meditating on Monday mornings in my primary school and how much I owed the school for such a liberal education and how it had finally paid off after sixty years.

James Foley (Third row, second on left); Susan Quinn (Front row, fourth from left)

If the spelling of caoutchouc is tricky, the pronunciation is even more tricky and can really only be grasped by word of mouth from one generation to he next, which is beyond the scope of the present essay. The Camino is full of surprises and moments of grace. To be confronted with a word that had been etched into my brain since childhood may not qualify as a Damascus moment, but it carried me along for a few kilometers with a lighter step on my way to Compostela. On arrival that year, I said a prayer at the tomb of my Patron Saint for our primary teacher and another for Susan Quinn. I am proud to count myself among those elite who can spell caoutchouc, even when my own tyres are getting a bit flat.

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