Ease with Dignity…The Rich (are different) List.

My Sunday paper is a mine of abstruse information. Two things struck me. One was an article on Aldborough House, a semi derelict ruin in Dublin’s north inner city. The other was a weighty supplement entitled The Rich List. It fell out of the bale of newsprint and struck me on the foot. I could sue on foot of serious injury or back strain from lifting the entire newspaper from the mailbox. I might be in line for millions, ensuring my place on next year’s edition. There might be millions of people in line to take similar actions as The Sunday Times is famously bulky.  A cursory flick through revealed the dismal news that I was not included in the 2017 rich list, just like previous years. Further dismal news revealed that the subjects of the interviews, in most cases became rich through hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill and unflagging determination. Very few it appeared became rich through inherited wealth. Some who had reached a great age, ploughed their money into philanthropic causes, helping others less fortunate than themselves. They bore out the theory that success brought on by hard work, is good for the health. Damn!

As for Aldborough House, I remember looking at it every morning from the train, as I made my way to UCD to study, among other things, Latin. I was convinced that there would be untold wealth to be gained from studying and teaching Latin. There it was on the portico in bold Roman letters OTIUM CUM DIGNITATE. I was onto a winner. Edward Augustus Stratford, (I knew a fellow from Stratford) the 2nd Duke of Aldborough, in the 1790s correctly envisaged the aspirations of a gentleman, a life of ease and dignity in a decent house, supported by privilege and inherited wealth. His timing was a bit askew. Within ten years The Act of Union deflected fashionable society away from Dublin to the centre of power in London. The grand town houses of the gentry fell into decay to the point that many became slums, while others became the business premises of professionals engaged in trade…(see above, hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill and unflagging determination.) No sign of ease and dignity there. How is a gentleman supposed to live? Aldborough House is a sorry remnant of its former self. Perhaps the new owners will redeem it. One of its lowest and ominously symbolic moments came with the discovery of a human skull when the leaking roof was being repaired in the 1950s. The theory was that this macabre occurrence dated to the North Strand bombing in World War II. An inauspicious discovery. The house looks rundown and possibly haunted. I imagine, never having been in it and never having tapped at the plaster work or probed the woodwork for wet and dry rot, that unmentionable horrors await any attempt to restore it.

As for the lucrative business of teaching Latin, the Second Vatican Council, knocked the arse out of that. Latin teachers were summarily turned out of schools and colleges to beg for their bread in the common street. For years I eked out a meagre  living in draughty hedge schools or as the despised tutor to the sons and daughters of decayed and debauched gentry in crumbling mansions. I lived below stairs and sat at table with the under footmen, scullery maids and grooms. The dry rot entered into my soul. My only comfort was a well-thumbed copy of S.P.Q.R. by Mary Beard, an illuminating tome about Roman civilisation. I mined the book, as she appeared to have mined the records and monuments of that faded empire. There were flashes of recognition from my student days, those bright days when I learned that all of Gallia is divisa in partes tres.; that it is dulce et decorum to die for the fatherland; that the chief priest of Rome was the Pontifex Maximus or bridge builder and stuff like that. I didn’t mention any of that to the footmen, the skittish young scullery maids or the grooms. What would they care? I recalled the words of that other great classicist, Frankie Howard, “titter ye not” but I knew that they would.  In S.P.Q.R. I found a harsh truth–the opposite of OTIUM (Ease) is NEGOTIUM (Business). It dawned on me that prosperity and wealth might be derived from business or even busyness. I had been on the wrong track all along. I devised a plan of action, (opposite of ease.)

It came to me on Quasimodo Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter. My paper had not arrived. I read in S.P.Q.R. that Rome is a mess. Most of the great buildings are falling down. The Vatican Museum is crammed with old stuff,  statues without limbs or noses, heads without bodies, torsos without heads, old pottery, out of date books, paintings and tapestries so out of fashion that nobody would want them in their own living room. Look at that building, Nero’s Golden House. “At last” says he,after bankrupting the empire and expending the lives of thousands of slaves, “I have a house where I can begin to live like a human being.”  What Rome needs is a Quasimodo, someone to scamper about ringing bells and tidying up. The place has enormous possibilities, tourism, Air b and b. Clear out all the old stuff. Put a lick of paint on all those ruins. Put Mary Beard on a modest retainer. She could do all the hard work. I wrote to the Pontiff, in my best school Latin, outlining my plan. Revive the Latin Mass. Establish a Vatican Latin academy, endorsed by the Latin-American Pope, with low-cost accommodation in the Vatican itself. We could both make a tidy sum out of it. It can’t go wrong. He’s a Latin-American, for God’ sake!. He doesn’t even use the papal apartments. The hallmark of the entrepreneur is to see an opportunity and go for it. Give it a year or two and we could both ascend in glory, with trumpet blasts and angelic choruses, into the glory of The Sunday Times Rich List.

Isn’t that a disgrace?

{My other field of study was Eng. Literature. Brush up your Shakespeare/And the women you will wow/Brush up your Shakespeare/And they’ll all kow- tow. Do you think it would be worth having another crack at impressing those giggling scullery maids?  I might hold on a while until I’m wealthy.}

Confessions of a Latin Lover.

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We were watching B.B.C. television. The programme ended, with credits rolling up the screen at a speed that always makes it impossible to read them. Talk about a fleeting moment of fame. The credits paused. My little daughter asked me: “Who’s that person, McMillix? He’s in all the programmes.” So he was. I was a teacher of Latin at the time, a member of an endangered species, now almost extinct. I had to explain that this was the date. The B.B.C. being such an august organisation, had to write the date in Roman numerals. It was MCMLXXIX or 1979 to ordinary mortals. She nodded but I could see that she thought it a cockeyed way of counting. She was right.  They had no zero. They couldn’t ‘put down the three and carry the one’ over to the next column, as the decimal system allows. It’s simple addition. At least it was, until some educational expert decreed that children should write all the numbers in a line from left to right and add them up sideways. Even after LX years, it still makes me furious. If it ain’t broke etc. To give McMillix his due, he provided some great family viewing, before the proliferation of screens scattered families to all parts of the house.

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In earlier times we could have brought our children to the local amphitheatre, to watch some recreational slaughter—admission free, courtesy of some great general or politician. Bread and Circuses, the sure way to political success. As members of the proletarii, the people of no wealth except for their children, (proles/prolific/proliferation and so on,) we would probably have had to occupy the higher seats, further from the action, probably in direct sunlight, but at least the food was free.  There was always some good family viewing on at the amphitheatre. We could have watched battles between groups of gladiators, with plenty of gore spilled into the sand (arena). We could have cheered to see women fighting wild beasts, or being torn apart by them. We might have been privileged to witness the dismembering of prisoners and enemies of Rome by ravenous, exotic animals. The execution of children would have been a salutary lesson to our own.  Throw in a few Christians for a laugh. On a good day the Emperor might have graced the proceedings with his presence, accompanied by the great nobles and ladies of quality. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to impress upon our proles, the glory of Rome and why the gods decreed that Rome alone should rule the world.

The study of Latin and Roman civilization has been a staple of European education for centuries. Generations have marvelled at their achievements, their mighty works of engineering and architecture and the brilliance of (most of) their military campaigns. It was the Romans who defined patriotism, love of country, as a willingness to die for the fatherland. It is a privilege, a duty and a delight. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. That was Horace, the poet son of a freed slave. Wilfred Owen, in our time, saw the grotesque reality of that lie. It is difficult to contemplate much of Roman civilization, without revulsion. Similarly, the heir to the Roman Empire, the Church of Rome inspires revulsion at the pointless opulence of the Vatican, the expense of which, split Christendom in two.  It’s a cockeyed way to carry on the work of the crucified carpenter from Galilee. I met an old English soldier who had fought in Italy during the war. He told me that he lost all respect for Catholics, because there were vendors in Pompeii, selling pornographic postcards of the frescoes in that unfortunate town. He presumed that they were Catholic. You can hardly blame the Church for everything. They did good business with the Tommies. The Romans saw pornography as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other.

Drumanagh Loughshinny

This is Drumanagh, a promontory at Loughshinny, north of Dublin. A defensive ditch cuts the headland off on the landward side. The martello tower is a nineteenth century addition.  I saw the field just after it was ploughed, possibly for the first time ever. There was an avenue leading from the ditch to the tower, marked by the black remains of cooking fires. Every patch was strewn with animal bones, evidence of long-standing human habitation. I found a decorative bronze pin lying on the newly turned earth. My brother, an archaeologist, promptly confiscated it.  He takes a very dim view of treasure hunters and metal detectors. It was just lying there, your honour. Drumanagh attracts legends, treasure hunters, strollers, motor bikers, people with theories, occasional fly-tippers. Some say that Cuchulainn, ‘the Irish Achilles’ seized his wife, Emer, from Drumanagh. Some suggest a Roman settlement. Vikings?  All the theories are urged with great conviction. It would repay a full excavation. No matter who lived there, it was a formidable fort.

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Aug 26th hawker plaque sunrise island 009

(This cliff is outside the ditch but similar to the rest of the promontory.)

Agricola (farmer) is alleged to have said that he could take Hibernia in a week with one or two legions. Maybe he tried. Maybe the Romans got their comeuppance near Drumanagh. A legend tells how Fionn MacCumhail and his Fianna fought The King of the World.  A recent report describes a significant find, a massacre of what appears to be a Roman force, about two kilometers from Drumanagh. Don’t ask me where. It’s all at an early stage of investigation. It could turn out to be our own little Teutoburg Forest, where Varus and another Roman army over-reached themselves. There is a certain satisfaction in thinking so. Vae victis. Alas for the defeated ones.

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And yet– and yet. I still love the language. It permeates our daily speech. It is the language of the sciences, from botany to medicine. It has given the stars and the elements that compose them, their names. It is spoken, in its various modern forms, from the Black Sea to the tip of Tierra del Fuego and the high Canadian Arctic. Dan Quayle, on a tour of Latin America, lamented  that he had never learned Latin. Salsa sauce out-sells tomato ketchup in the United States, evidence of the re-colonisation of what was once Spanish America. I love its precision and clarity. An understanding of its structure is a guide to clear expression in the English language. It gave us the elegant Roman alphabet, where letters took their style from the turn of a mason’s wrist or the broad goose quill in the fingers of a scribe.

Is there not a contradiction in school teachers extolling the effectiveness of the short, stabbing sword as a weapon? Is there not a contradiction in  ‘blockbuster’ entertainment relying so heavily on blood and guts as family entertainment? Am I, in some small degree, also to blame? If so, mea maxima culpa.

I must have a word with McMillix, if I ever get to meet him.