Relieved not to have to translate himself, Barry's mind went into overdrive. 'Hello Mrs Caesar, is Julius in?' 'No, Caesar said he was going to Gaul.' 'Where's Gaul?' 'Somewhere out on the Wirral I think.'
Barry is among about 50 people interviewed by myself and a Radio 4 producer in the course of putting together Talking in Class, a series of programmes about memories of secondary schooling since the Second World War. It was a shock was to realise how few people enjoyed their schooldays or felt they learnt much. And if Barry's memories of the fog and a booming river economy echo Dickens, the punishments meted out at his school seem even more Dickensian.
'They did not use language and intonation like the English do to put you down, to gain advantage. What they used was violence.' The strap was produced from the folds of the cassock with the flourish of a gunfighter. 'It was about 18in long and it was made of beautifully stitched leather with a reinforcement of whalebone; flexible but very heavy.'
The happiest memories came from the academically successful: the ex-grammar school boy who enjoyed the wit and zaniness of the sixth formers who arranged for a bag of flour to cascade over the heads of the dignitaries at speech day; the woman who found the wooden desks and marble staircases of her grammar school 'like my life's dream come true'.
Some enjoyed the social life. Jill and her friends would meet at the end of the road, do their hair and parade to school together. 'We were in a strong girls' group and thought that boys were substandard. They'd cry when we finished with them, and we'd think they were a bit weak and wet.' That was the early Eighties, and teachers were not admired for their classical learning: 'We had this hippy woman to teach us art. She had striped trousers and hennaed her hair and we thought we wanted to be like her.'
Such teachers were role models who, like the pupils in the late Sixties and early Seventies, seemed able to take some control of their lives. During these years, officially sanctioned violence started to fade, regulation berets appeared on top of beehive hairdos, and stories about attempts to measure the distance between mini-skirt hem and floor as girls knelt for assembly began to seem comic rather than oppressive.
Jane remembers her years at a comprehensive in the Sixties as a time of opportunity for working-class people like herself: 'We had teachers who assumed we were alive and bright and clever and could achieve. That we could do things. They believed in us.'
Ten years earlier, in a Yorkshire secondary modern school, Steve was finding French as remote as Barry's Latin. 'None of us were going to go further than the brickyard, the rolling mill or the steelworks. But I was exactly what Britain needed; a good, healthy kid who'd go out and carry on the great machine.'
A few had trouble finding any memories at all. Oddly, these were among the most recent pupils, for whom school was about as exciting as going into Marks & Spencer to buy a pair of trousers. But for anyone over 40, school seems have been a great boulder in the path of their lives, that they either scrambled round with delight, or cowered beneath then, and perhaps ever since.
'Even now I still dream about those days when I was frightened to go to school because it was going to be English or Maths and I knew I couldn't get anywhere with it,' remembers Catherine, now 47. 'And they always seemed to pick on you to read aloud in the classroom, always picked on those they knew were going to stand there trembling.'
Few felt that school knew best. None who witnessed casual brutality, such as the woman who remembered her English teacher tearing up one boy's only piece of coursework that year, judge it any differently now. It's a sobering thought for me as a classroom teacher that all those pairs of eyes in adolescent faces are attached to brains with adult judgements. If I'm a prat tomorrow, I'll be remembered as a prat, not as an adult who knew best. It's clear from these tales that no one appreciates unkindness.
The four-part series, 'Talking in Class', is on at 10am on Fridays on Radio 4 FM.
All those interviewed were assured of anonymity, and names have been changed.Reuse content