There we were at one o’clock all sitting after lunchbreak in the Latin class, the teacher Mr Sinclair, whom we called Bubbles, no idea why at all, his classes were pretty solid and interesting … possibly one could say they were bubbly. He was in his late 20s, we were 15 years younger. He wore the black “cloak” all the teachers wore, to look learned and masterly, or more likely they were useful protectors against chalk dust. Not that every teacher at Perth Academy back in the mid-1960s wore the protectors, possibly because they didn’t bother much with the arduous business of writing anything on the huge blackboards.
Under his robe Bubbles wore always the same light tweedy suit, the most memorable thing about it being a yellow stain at his crotch, often about eye level as we sat in old oak double desks, complete with holes for inkwells. He clearly hung to the left, and I’m not talking politics.
There were only about 20 of us in the Latin class, possibly just for those who had already decided they’d go on to careers in medicine or law; in my case it was that I enjoyed it and could do it better than science subjects. Anyway, it was nice being in a small group instead of the usual big class of around 35.
We didn’t have to line up outside the room which was great, we were trusted to be on the ball and ready to learn without the discipline of “holding our wheesht” in line before entering class. We were in our usual places, jotters out, our Latin textbooks by Paterson&McNaughton at the ready. Bubbles came in and looked around. He said, “Er, is it my imagination, or are a couple of our worthy Latin scholars missing?”
We knew exactly – James and Ewen weren’t there. I had been with them only five minutes before. Where on earth were they? The minutes ticked by as Bubbles told us about the day’s lesson of some new conjugation, a few new words, which we would need for translating orally some Caeserean passage about Roman spears and shields.
It was nearly ten minutes into the class, and a concentrated silence of dedicated learning had gripped the group. Someone was translating to English with, “The centurion threw his spear at the ramparts.” He was interrupted when we heard gales of laughter in the distance from down the stairwell, coming closer, not your usual laughing and stopping, this was continuous crazed stuff, out of control, totally manic, spluttering giggling. I could imagine the perpetrators bent double, hardly able to walk. The laughing got to the top of the stairs not far from the classroom. Bubbles stopped the lesson and looked towards the door. The laughing came in, James almost unable to walk with the giggles, Ewen just managing to hold it in. They both got to their seats somehow.
Bubbles said, “Good of you to join us? Must have been something very important to be 10 minutes late and in a state of extreme levity, perhaps we can say jollity.”
James said, “Yes, sir. We were downstairs, sir …”
Bubbles said, “Well, that would hardly be the cause of such mirth, would it?
Do I have to guess at the cause of your jocundity?”
It was Ewen’s turn to speak, “Yes, sir.” This caused James to return to bursting with the giggles.
Bubbles tried again with, “I’m sure the class would like to know what you’ve been up to. You are going to tell us, aren’t you?”
Ewen quickly said, “Oh no, sir!”
James said about the same time, “Yes, sir,” but no certainty in the tone.
Bubbles said he was waiting and would appreciate it if it was stated in Latin, by way of a lesson … in both senses of the word.
James bravely had a go: “Ewen et ego in toileto eramus … “
Bubbles grimaced and suggested “latrina”.
James repeated with the correction: “Ah, Ewen et ego in latrina eramus, et …”
“Oh dear, I wonder if our tender ears should be receiving this kind of thing,” said Bubbles.
Fourth Form Latin Class with Mr Sinclair, 1963
James then asked the strangest question: “What’s the Latin for pinky finger, sir?” I was sure that the Latin master, although very knowledgeable, wouldn’t know, but he came straight out with “parva digitus” and was good enough to write it on the board, then turned to say this sounded even sillier than James’s usual prankish stuff but he was still interested.
I wondered what on earth parva digitus had to do with being 10 minutes late for class. We were all agog as to where this explanation, probably wildly creative, was going. Would there be another daft word? What would it be?
We were pupils who normally sat calmly in absorption mode, pupils who would go on to become teachers themselves – possibly not of Latin though – to travel the world as engineers, lawyers, architects, musicians, and even one fine lass who would come to occupy a seat in the British House of Lords. She looked amused and hid behind her hair; Sandy quipped with “Excretor tauri omnia vincit”, and Brian, a bit of an egghead, asked why we weren’t getting on with the Latin lesson. Most of us though had eyes and ears wide open to receive the explanation for our classmates’ lateness.
“And what is urine?” James asked.
Bubbles said, “I think perhaps it would be best if you write this for me at home … .”
A couple of pupils said they were keen to hear now, so Bubbles in his usual humorous style, asked James, “You are asking for the Latin word, I trust?”
James agreed, “Oh yes, sir!”
Bubbles duly delivered with “urina”.
Ewen learnedly said he was surprised it was Feminine.
James suggested that that would then be “urinus” which would need care with pronunciation.
Bubbles agreed with him, especially in the way he had mispronounced the word, for sure on purpose.
James then asked for “to dry” in Latin.
Bubbles said, “I hope this will all turn out to give us the explanation of your extreme lateness.”
Fortunately, after a few more minutes of messing about with various Latin words, we were all none the wiser, and Bubbles set them both the task of a one-page translation as extra homework.
I could hardly wait for the end of class to get the real McCoy. It transpired that they’d gone to the toilet and James had managed to widdle on his pinky and had washed just the one unfortunate digit under the tap before leaving with it held aloft in the air, all the way up two flights of stairs, trying to dry it before going into class.
All three of us bent over double in fits of laughter, as much at the events in the Latin class as at the total daftness of the toilet tale. Our fits of giggles caused us to be late for the next class. The thought crossed my mind that this story, these actions could be repeated several times a day.
“Urina in digito minimo rigarabam et lavabam. Siccare tendabam dum veniebam ad classis locum.”