John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Being economical with words, my daughter chose to build a Roman gladiator, rather than write about one'
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The Independent Online

The teaching of Latin has changed a bit since my chums and I in the fourth form used to change the title page of Kennedy's Latin Primer to Kennedy's Eating Prime Beef, and invent dog-Latin formulations like "Caesar ad sum iam forte" (you have to say it aloud). In exams, we were given unseen translations from Virgil or Ovid into English – that basic, if seldom simple, process of representing one civilisation in the language of another, which was once seen as fundamental to any truly cultured education.

It's not quite like that anymore. Boris Johnson may amaze the unlettered by salting his discourse with classical tags (if the Tube now starts running on time, will it be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc?), but it's clear that Latin studies in schools have become less rigorous than in the days when we'd be thrashed for failing to know the future-perfect second-person-plural of appropinquo. I know this because of the presence of Quintus Caecilius in my kitchen.

Quintus is a Roman gladiator. He is of limited stature, but he means business. He has a sword, a shield and an expression that suggests you do not call him a shortarse to his face. He represents a 20 per cent chunk of my daughter's Latin coursework. She is two years away from starting her GCSEs, but they take end-of-year exams seriously in this school. The Gladiator Project, she was told, could involve a 10-page essay on Roman games of wooden horses, or a five-page essay with a small figure of a Roman subject, or a two-pager with a large model of a similar citizen. Being naturally economical with words, she chose the last option; to build a gladiator rather than write about one.

Her homework accompanied her down to Hampshire where, with her aunt, she made a papier-mâché figure. She bore it home in two plastic bags, from which pink, distended limbs stuck out, to the dark suspicions of passengers on the Waterloo commuter run. I became used to entering the kitchen, only to find a small, naked figure lying in a mass of newspapers, like that little alien in footage of the Roswell Incident. As my daughter added extra papier and glue to his manly frame, she left the figure to dry in ever more imaginatively chosen warm sites. You couldn't open the airing cupboard without finding Mr Stunted Naked Guy lurking inside. It was as if Anthony Gormley had come to stay, and put his human figures in coigns of vantage all over the house.

The gladiator was christened Quintus. He acquired a red T-shirt, a plastic helmet, a silver-foil cuirass and leather-cardboard sandals. Over the bank-holiday weekend, he evolved to a complex personality. There was something odd about his stance, but in most respects he was a terrifying emblem of Roman military might. When the girls had finished his face, he was sporting bushy eyebrows, some fetching pink lipstick (that should intimidate his quaking opponents in the killing arena) and an expression of fathomless contempt. He looked conflicted by promptings of gladiatorial duty and instincts of self-preservation; he was a play-thing of the empire but also a proud Roman, wondering about the folly of men fighting to their deaths for the entertainment of the masses, to stop them noticing the corruption of their imperial masters...

I'd been sceptical about the value of teaching young scholars Latin through the medium of paper and glue. But as Quintus has flowered into life under my daughter's hands, full of pugnacity and pathos, I'm suddenly not so sure.

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Interesting to see what the government thought worth stockpiling, in 1955, against the possibility of a nuclear attack. The newly released report from the Defence Plans Division urges that a massive effort be made to ensure the nation's moral fibre wasn't weakened by missing essential and favourite foods. And what did they recommend panic-buying? Forty thousand tons of condensed milk, tons of wheat and flour, and similar amounts of raw sugar, oils and fats. Oh, and tea. The powers-that-be fretted that, in a nuclear aftermath, "it would be wrong to consider that even one ounce per head per week (enough for about 12 cups) could be ensured". Can you hear, behind these words, a biting-my-lip alarm, as the writer contemplates the proposition that Britons might one day – steady on, old girl – have no tea at all? It surely says something about a nation, that its priority rations in an emergency all are things that could be found in an English tea-room anywhere from the Cotswolds to Cornwall.

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Hats off to Willoughby Goddard, who died last week. His isn't a name familiar to the young, but he fired our hearts in the late Fifties, playing the villainous Austrian, Landberger Gessler, in The Adventures of William Tell on ATV. Vastly fat, cruel and eternally thwarted by the Swiss mountain men, Gessler was always discovered in his throne-room eating greasy chicken, or bellowing "After them, you fools!" at his dozy soldiers. He was sleek and sleazy and vindictive. He left a generation of kids with a lifelong antipathy to fat Austrians, sneery authority figures and people who eat with their fingers. He was the first sighting we had of a real TV villain, and he set the standard a mile high.

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