I once ran a language course up in Kings Lynn. One afternoon, we were going orienteering in a wood near Sandringham and were supposed to leave at 13.45. I wanted to get something in town so I left everyone on the lawn having a picnic lunch and told them not to go till I got back, since I was the only one who knew where to go.
When I did get back at 13.47 the buggers had gone. (So much for iron discipline - they later said they had “forgotten” me! “Forgotten”? “ME?”) I cursed uselessly, piled into the car and hared off to the wood. I parked up and had a look round, eventually spotting some of my so-called teaching team having drinks in the snack-bar. “Where are the kids? Why the hell did you leave without me?” I asked. “Oh, we thought you weren’t coming. Relax, Chris - you take things too seriously. Have a drink. The kids have all gone off into the woods to look for the clues.” “I didn’t know you knew where to come I said.” “The caretaker said he knew where it would be - West Sandringham Wood.”
Well, everything seemed to be under control, so I sat down and had a coffee. Twenty minutes later a couple of Italian kids came staggering up. “Chreesa - we cannotta find ze cluesa,” sort of thing. “Don’t talk rubbish,” I said. You’re not looking hard enough. Look above eye level. Check out the branches. Look for messages attached to roots. ” And off they puffed. Five minutes later, another lot came up. Same story - different accent. “You useless layabouts,” I said. You’re just not using your eyes. The clues are there. Just take your time. Look carefully.”
Another coffee. Ten minutes later, three Germans march up to the table. “Kris. Vee are not very amust. Zere are no clues.” “Gunther,” I said, “ I am disappointed with you. I thought you Germans were so efficient (testing his sense of humour). “Of COURSE there are clues. Maybe you got there too late and the others have hidden them. Probably those Italians .... Go on - you’re not going to let a load of Italians get the better of you are you? You and Helmut get off and find those clues.” And off they trudged, not exactly convinced ...
Well, this went on for some time until finally a huge bunch of students came storming up, clearly quite irate. Well, they would have been irate if they’d known what it meant. “Chris - zair are NO CLOOZE!”
Well, faced with a massive multi-national rebellion I had to think fast. “OK,” I thought. “A complete bunch of foreign merchants can’t even find some nancy-boy clues pinned to some trees. Better show them how it’s done.” And off we all traipsed into the wood with me leading the way like the Pied Piper’s fat uncle without a pipe. Well, could I find any clues? No, I bloody well couldn’t. And after each tree there came a chorus of triumph: “See, vee told you.” and “Zere’sa no cluesa Chrisa. We tolda you.” and so on. This was not exactly music to the great, British team-leader’s ears and was doing serious damage to my image.
Eventually I had to admit that I couldn’t find any clues either, no matter how hard I was striving not to look a complete idiot in front of a load of teenage foreigners. We marched limply back to the snack-bar and lo and behold there was the blighter who’d organised the activity for me. “Oi, Billy,” I shouted, trying to appear masterful in defence of my poor students. “Where are all the bloody clues you told me you had put out? Nobody can find any”
“Of course you can’t find any,” he said. “You’re all in the wrong effing wood. I told you to go to EAST Sandringham Wood.”
Well, the whole assembled mass of foreign youth was listening to all this. Pathetic though their English was, they were not all quite as slow as the British take all foreigners to be. They all started jeering and - to their credit - laughing, but unfortunately at me. Still, we British are nothing but good losers so I played to the gallery with a few grovelling genuflexions and mimed self-inflicted backlashings.
And that’s one of the few times in my life when I haven’t been able to see the trees for the wood.