Friday, August 13, 2010

Keith Hargreaves, RIP

You know you are getting old when your teachers start dying. Two years ago, I attended the funeral of the man who taught me to appreciate cricket, English and ale. Yesterday we laid to rest my first Latin teacher.

I say "we" but I almost felt like an intruder at the crematorium. The last time I saw Keith Hargreaves was more than 20 years ago and I cannot claim in any way to have known him. He retired - for health reasons at the far-too-early age of 54 - and taught me only for one year.

Yet you never forget the first flowering of love and it was this bluff Yorkshireman who helped me to fall in love with Latin and, as a result, shaped my schooling, university career and general outlook on life.

A well-thumbed copy of that first text book Ecce Romani - "behold, the Romans" - sits on my bookshelf but I don't need to open it to recite that opening chapter: Ecce, in pictura est puella, nomine Cornelia. Cornelia est puella romana, qui in Italia habitat. Quoque in pictura est altera puella, nomine Flavia. Flavia cantat quod laeta est.

Gripping stuff and that is long before you get on to the arrival of Sextus, the puer molestus, or Davus, the groaning slave.

I remember the silly things about Mr Hargreaves: the string vest that was always visible under his shirt, the way he could throw exercise books across the room with pinpoint accuracy, the blows he would deliver to the back of a boy's neck with a rolled up book if they got their answers wrong.

I remember vividly the day we got on to the accusative plural of the first declension. Puella - girl - was the noun and when one boy was asked to read the accusative plural he pronounced it to rhyme with umbrellas.

"Not puellas," Mr Hargreaves said. "Pu - ell - ARSE."

There was naturally much laughter, to which the teacher replied: "And if you think that is funny, wait until you do the accusative plural of this word." And he wrote causa on the blackboard.

It took a couple of seconds and then the sniggers from the bright kids were followed in time by the guffaws of the less quick. Cow's Arse, of course.

I also remember the day that he made my friend cry. Richard, bless him, was a bit of a daydreamer and when he was asked to translate a word, he had to admit that he did not know where we had got to.

"Richard, what I am looking at is assumo," Mr Hargreaves said.

Except that Richard was a tubby little fellow and, this being 1988, Japanese wrestling was popular on television. He thought that the teacher was cruelly mocking his weight and started to blub. Of course, it was all a misapprehension, but that did not stop the rest of the class calling Richard a sumo for the next few days.

I never knew Mr Hargreaves and he never knew me. I may have come top in my year's Latin tests that first year, but for all he knew as he left the school in 1989 I was just another bright 12-year-old. Other teachers steered me through GCSEs, A levels and a degree in the subject - along with teaching me ancient Greek from the age of 14 - but I will always be especially grateful to the Yorkshireman with the string vest and the perfect throwing arm for giving me that start.

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