Monday 27 September 2010


The Classics teacher, Mr Crimmins, wasn't very particular about getting grammar and reality into some kind of alignment. Latin Grammar was a universe of its own where you could make the most unlikely statements, such as 'He was killed by, with, or from a table', and where you often found yourself addressing tables and other unlikely respondents.
Mr Crimmins didn't have much time for explaining things: 'Underline that, laddie,' he'd say, 'and write on the margin ablative absolute.' An ablative absolute was simply an ablative absolute, and I never learned any more from Mr Crimmins than how to recognize the physical presence of one in a text, for the purpose of answering the grammar questions in exams. In Greek, the genitive absolute received as short a shrift. Mr Crimmins was retentive about grammar, and told us only what we needed to know, as if telling us any extra would put us in danger of spilling the beans to the enemy.
There was another underlineable construction in Greek, the perfect participle passive, which Mr Crimmins made the class abbreviate in a mathematical way as p cubed - p3. The most impressive example of it occurred in The Peloponnesian War, a kind of historical horror story written by an Ancient Greek named Thucydides ('Tucky' for short). I forget the Greek words in this example of p cubed, but there were only two of them, and they managed to compact the whole idea of a community under prolonged siege, which is eventually driven out by starvation and disease to be slaughtered by their enemies. That was the kind of material The Peloponnesian War dealt with; we weren't entirely surprised when Mr Crimmins told us that Tucky committed suicide after writing the book.
The Classics teacher's translations were his own, from his head rather than notes, and painfully literal. I remember one example in particular from Xenophon's Anabasis: 'For the fallen snow was warm to whoever did not move of those lying down'. Mr Crimmins would interrupt his tortuous renderings and tell us to underline something: we'd write p3 or Gen Abs on the margins of our pocket-sized textbooks, and he'd resume the story of the Greeks returning from the service of the Great King (who was simply called 'king' in Greek, without the dignity of a capital or definite article, another unexplained grammatical mystery). The most memorable part of this story was when the soldiers were within sight of the sea that would take them back to their native land, and they all started running up a hill to see it, shouting Thalatta! Thalatta! as they ran.
Mr Crimmins was a bit of an old codger, a squat little man with a moon-face, on top of which stood a wisp of silver hair. And his teaching was also like the moon, shedding just enough light to get you home. But he sometimes digressed from his subjects to make general and oft-repeated observations which revealed that his views, like his translations, were his own:
'Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum was a social charter for the poor and the working classes, laddie. And do you know which country was the first to implement it? Pagan England. Pagan England, laddie.' 
Greek was in competition with history because the students had to choose between them after the Intermediate Certificate exams. Mr Crimmins had a poor view of history: 'Always remember this, laddie: the unemployed read history in the local library.'
He always addressed the class as 'laddie', as if we were all one, which we were to him, I suppose - some kind of noisy animal with a lot of tentacles, and a mouth at the end of each tentacle - because he wasn't very good at keeping order. 
His favourite expression of all, though, was festina lente: 'Hasten slowly, laddie. That's how you'll pass your exams. The old Romans were right, you know. That's how they built up an empire. They hastened slowly. Festina lente. That's what does it, laddie.'
The Greek soldiers in Xenophon's Anabasis who didn't want to get up were like the college boys in the mornings when the dean came into the dormitory and walked to the end of it and back again, clapping his hands. The Greek soldiers were also in warm beds, although their topmost blankets were made of snow, and they didn't want to get up any more than the boys did. Xenophon had to go around like the dean and give a prod to those who were not getting up. Sometimes one of the boys would tell the dean that he had a cold or the flu, and, after careful scrutiny of the boy's face, the dean might or might not allow him to stay in bed. 
Xenophon's men couldn't stay in bed because they had to march on, and anyway they'd catch their death if they remained under the snow. I once told Father Acanthus, who was substituting on the dean's day off, that I had a cold; I thought he might be a soft touch. But Acanthus knew that I was shamming, and he gripped the bed by its frame, turned it over and landed me on the floor. Everyone laughed because Acanthus was a wizened, wiry little priest who performed boyish pranks to correct the pranks of the boys. Sometimes a chap would sham illness simply for a dare, to see what would happen. Anything to make life interesting.
The boys in their iron beds in the dormitories after the lights out probably cuddled into some comforting memory or prospect as they drifted into sleep - of home, of their mothers, of the holidays. No doubt the sucks in the college were mostly boys who missed their mothers a lot. Mammy's boys. But the Spartans were a warlike race, and their children were taught to be warriors from an early age. Christians were expected to put on the armour of light. It was a paradox to say hasten slowly, but it wasn't an example of oxymoron, which is when the adjective contradicts the noun. It was hard to know how you could hasten slowly. Sleep came to me as I tried to figure it out.

(From memoir in progress, The Hungarian for Cheese)

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