The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Lynn Gordon
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
In a world where nothing is certain and the ground seems to slip like shifting sand beneath our feet, where can we look for comfort?
Belfast in the 1970s was not a fun place to be: the Troubles were at their height; what might have been unspeakable horror only a few years earlier had now become part of the everyday; security gates and security checks were a familiar part of our landscape; no fireworks at Hallowe’en, no buses after 10pm. The bleakness was as tangible as the fear which formed the warp and weft of our lives. It was also an unsettling time for the 11 year old me; I had just lost a beloved grandfather and had moved from the cosy cocoon of primary school to the bigger arena of senior school and life seemed somehow out of kilter and unfamiliar.
And then – this book. And everything changed.
This (now rather tatty) pink textbook means everything to me. It’s the first Latin book I ever had and it has stayed with me since, following me wherever my studies and career took me, a treasured friend and comforter, a reminder of the actual joy I felt as I realised how completely amazing Latin was.
In a world of all-singing, all-dancing, snazzy texts like the Cambridge Latin Course and De Romanis, it’s an oddly old-fashioned book, making little concession to ‘keeping it simple’. No – all the standard grammatical terms are there – nominative, accusative, gerundive of obligation, antecedent – but oh, how I loved the almost mystical language of grammar: the forms of nouns, the many tenses, voices and moods of verbs, the precision of participles and the sheer strangeness of the vocabulary (rixa! spelcunca! mercatura! genu!), And the stories – the Trojan War, Mucius Scaevola, the Golden Fleece, Scipio and Hannibal, the Persian Wars… Every time I opened this book, I found new things to learn, new images to pour over, new challenges to overcome, new ideas to consider. Latin gave me everything I didn’t realise I needed – order in chaos, beauty in an ugly world, and the resilience to persevere when homeworks weren’t as good as I’d hoped, when grammar got harder, when others thought my love for this strange new subject was just a bit weird. I knew that this, above all other subjects, posed questions I couldn’t quite answer but it made me want to try. It still does and I still do.
So when times are tough, it is to this pink book that I turn. I can see myself sitting in H5 in the Methodist College, listening to Mr. Mulryne, the best teacher I could ever have wished for, and even if the world around me was difficult and scary and sad, here I found my happy place of calm and purpose. It helps me remember that I have faced hard times before and come through; and I will do so again. And my little pink Latin book will still be with me, like a familiar light in the window, calling me home to the love of my life through every storm.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
In a pre-COVID world, I love the theatre – both watching and participating – and I recently took up tap dancing again (an excellent antidote to classroom stress!); I enjoy a good weepie at the cinema and putting the universe to rights with my friends over dinner and the (odd) gin and tonic. Now, though, it’s simpler things which cheer me up: working my way through my Lockdown Library of never-decreasing books; rediscovering my inner domestic goddess (not through banana bread, though) and doing my bit to keep the economy going through Zara Online…
Lynn Gordon is Head of Classics at The Royal Belfast Academical Institution, an all-boys state grammar school in Northern Ireland. She first learned to love the ancient world and its languages at the Methodist College Belfast, and she is almost obsessively passionate about Propertius, the reception of classical texts in Irish literature and the cultural politics of the Social War. She really should get out more…
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.