Postcard from Durham: Wharraye geein,then? Ancient Greek, man, says a classics lecturer

Dear all

Here I am, teaching ancient Greek to schoolchildren in the north-east of England, in the summer holidays.

Honest. It's the first-ever Newcastle Greek and Latin one-week residential summer school. All comers welcome, all linguistic levels catered for, from beginners to A-level; some adults, mostly sixth-formers (age range 16-78, gathered in from Jersey to Northumberland), three intensive one-hour small-group teaching sessions a day; preparation in between; and an evening lecture (everything from a demonstration of Hiero's steam engine to the miracles of Indo-European philology). And not a press-gang in sight.

Are they mad, you ask? All too sane. The 78-year-old learning Greek, asked the obvious question by the local TV, replied that she'd heard ancient Greek was paradise, and wanted a taste of it before it was too late. Another adult told me a businessmen's 'communication skills' day seminar cost pounds 375 plus VAT ('Learn to speak with forked lunch'), but he was learning far more here about communication skills, at pounds 30 a day all-in.

Knackering, though. Today is a free afternoon, so while the students visit Hadrian's Wall, I'm slumped on a bench under a tree with my equally exhausted Newcastle colleague David West (advanced Latin), but a very sprightly Brigid Ackerley, head of classics at Newcastle Central High (beginners' Greek). The excellent Durham School (where we reside) has a county-standard cricket pitch, and we're trying to recover by watching Durham vs Leicester (2nd XI). The young men race about, but will we ever move again?

It can't be what I'm teaching (Homer Odyssey 9, Odysseus and the Cyclops. Paradise will have little to offer me). It can't be my class: seven bright and brilliant sixth formers, keen as horseradish sauce, with the scent of Newcastle University in their nostrils (or was it Oxford? Absurd idea). We'll blind Cyclops and rescue Odysseus and his men from the cave quite easily in our eight sessions - quicker than they've ever read any Greek in all their lives.

And I suspect they haven't had a night's sleep since they arrived. While I crawl home, they frolic around till the small hours.

If we dons flag, the teachers burst with life. Brigid Ackerley points out the joyful difference from school: pure, unadulterated teaching without any other interference, and everyone there for love. I feel very feeble.

This morning one of the class (from Bristol) begins translating at the wrong point. 'Hoy man, wharraye deein?' I exclaim, dropping into the vernacular. 'Is that Greek?' she asks tentatively, misled by the 'hoy'. The two Geordies in the class collapse. 'How about a Geordie Summer School next year?' someone suggests. 'No way,' says another. 'Greek's much easier. Come on, where are we? Line 347: Kuklvy, th, pie oinon. 'Cyclops, here, drink the wine.' '

Paradise indeed.

Peter Jones

(Photograph omitted)

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