Salvete! Abigail Rieley on the joys of learning Latin.
The Eagle, based on The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff, hits Irish cinemas this weekend – I’m counting the days. Every time I see those toilet brush helmets my heart gives a little flutter. It’s not the sight of Russell Crowe wielding a gladius or the cast of the TV series of Spartacus wielding a lot more that has me this way, this is an obsession with much older roots. When it comes to all things Roman, I’m a total groupie. It might have something to do with growing up in London and being told that if you dug down far enough you could find the layer of ash from when Boudicca burned Londinium to the ground. It might have been the crumbling romanticism of the grassy piles of stones called Caesar’s Camp near where I grew up in Wimbledon. But if I’m honest, I was too much of a bookish kid to root my obsessions so much in the fresh air. This one has a lot more to do with a wonderfully dotty Latin teacher and the Cambridge Latin series of text books.
My school before I left England was the kind of place they used to make Ealing Comedies about back in the day. We celebrated the school’s birthday every year with lime green, sickly sweet cake, there was a school song as well as a school hymn and a glass case at the end of the first floor gallery had its tiny compartments filled with the tourist tat of an Edwardian past pupil who’d taken the Grand Tour of the Holy Land – piece of the True Cross – check, stone from the island where Jason and his Argonauts stopped off – check. Around this same wood panelled gallery hung heavy black boards with the names of those who had left with flying honours to a glittering Oxbridge education. It was a minor public day school, stuck in amber and tradition, smelling of chalk dust and furniture polish.
Miss Bickersteth was one of those traditions. If she had been a character in one of those Ealing films, Joyce Grenfell would have been a shoo-in for the part. By the time my class came to her we were primed with stories from older siblings, mothers, aunts. Her legendary status crossed generations. She was a slight, wiry woman with greying hair sculpted in Art Deco pin curls. Every class she would stride in, in her tweed pencil skirt and sensible brogues and stand behind the teacher’s desk, almost crackling with enthusiastic energy. She had a passion for a dead language that was ridiculously infectious and she was one of those rare teachers that everyone loved. No matter what we threw at her (even if our ideas of playing up in class were embarrassingly lame) she would take in her stride. When we decided to play dumb she followed suit and then threatened us with a test, when she arrived in class to find all the desks and chairs upside down she ignored them and made us sit on the floor. The woman was unruffleable – except on one occasion I can remember.
Now, I know that Latin isn’t generally seen as one of the sexiest subjects on the school curriculum, but you never heard one of Miss Bickersteth’s classes on life in ancient Rome. We learnt that doctors would use spiders webs to coagulate the blood in an open wound and, on one memorable occasion, how prostitutes used to ply their wares under the bridges of the Tiber. I think we were mistaken for the Upper Fifth, because half way through the description her hand flew to her mouth and she actually blushed. It took us several minutes to convince her that we had heard worse, before her embarrassment would subside. We had heard worse though. On Miss Bickersteth’s recommendation the whole class had been avidly tuning in to the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius, currently getting a second airing at 9 o’ clock on a school night. For kids raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and Adrian Mole the sex, madness and political intrigue of Robert Graves’ classic novels were intoxicating indeed. It was in I, Claudius I saw my first sword’s-eye view of a beheading (which still makes me rather queasy to watch) and we were all shaken by John Hurt’s crazed performance as a Caligula who ate the baby he had ripped from his sister’s womb in the hope it should sprout from his head as Aphrodite. Then there was Livia – the Joan Crawford of toga-ed divas – poisoning her way through her nearest and dearest.
Miss Bickersteth’s Latin classes had a Brother’s Grimm knack of showing us that life could be a dark, bloody affair. There was nothing dry or dusty about them, even if the verb conjugations formed an academic litany reaching back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays and beyond. But gifted and all as Miss Bickersteth was as a teacher, we wouldn’t have had that description of medicinal cobwebs without the Cambridge series of Latin text books. There aren’t many school books, with the possible exception of Soundings here in Ireland, that have wormed their way so into the psyche of those who studied them that they have their echoes in some of the most popular of popular culture. Like Soundings the Cambridge books worked because they had great content. Instead of pages of exercises and verb conjugations (worthy of repetition – they figure a LOT in Latin classes), these text books told a story. Book 1 was set in Pompeii. You knew from the beginning the ending was going to be harsh, with explosions. We were shown videos of the sad, frozen, ash-covered bodies, seen the all too visible silent screams frozen in their last moment of fear. We knew that the family going through day-to-day life with the express purpose of introducing us to the next stage of vocabulary were destined for a fiery end. Prosperous banker Caecilius, his lady-who-lunches wife Metella and their grown up and rather hunky, in a way that can only be captured by black and white stylised illustrations, son Quintus. By the time we got to the final chapter and laboriously translated the initial rumblings of Vesuvius, even Miss Bickersteth was rather sombre.
We had read about Caecilius getting anxious about a swan being slowly roasted to entertain a business associate or irritating his wife with the purchase of a particularly comely female slave. Now his final hours had come we all read the last instalments together. It came as rather a shock when, researching this post I visited the Cambridge website . The books are as I remember, although the green covers I remember have been long since revamped. Quintus now doesn’t look half as hunky as I seem to remember but I discovered, when I read that final chapter again, that I can still read the Latin after all this time. The chapter must have left one hell of an impression! Reading it again after all those years I’m amazed at how strong it still is. Read it yourself if you’re interested – it’s here. But I warn you – it’s poignant stuff – Caecilius gets hit by falling masonry and the family dog, Cerberus, also succumbs.
Actually I’m obviously not the only one scarred for life by that final chapter of first year Latin. Reminiscing recently with a fellow alumni of those slim green books Caecilius and his family are cemented in the adolescent brain. They even pop up in the Dr Who episode The Fires of Pompeii. A scriptwriter perhaps keen to exorcise a haunting image has given Caecilius a new start with the ever faithful Metella and Quintus, who will now not have to face the British weather in Book 2 with the irascible but memorably named local big wig Cogidubnus.
These days my Latin might be rusty but I’ll still be booking my tickets to soak up the Romano-British action. Ancient Rome was the first thing I was ever a geek about and for that I’m forever thankful to Miss Bickersteth and Caecilius et al.