Friday, 13 June 2014

Hatred Ridicule & Contempt: an extract for King Henry VIII

No, not the monarch - my old alma mater King Henry VIII School, Coventry. Any former pupil from the seventies in particular might just see signs here of a subconscious (or possibly deliberate) tribute to a wonderful character from the teaching staff...

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As he approached the converted bothy in a remote area of northern Scotland, a slim tracksuited figure defied his seventy plus years as he ran up his garden path to the front door, quickening his pace at the sound of his phone ringing despite the eight miles already beneath his feet. He seized the receiver as it rang for the sixth time.

“Am I speaking to Sid Parry?” Alex had deliberately not gone into the office at his usual hour, preferring to make the call from home so as to follow it up in complete privacy. Assuming, of course, that the call would prove fruitful.

“You are indeed. Excuse me one moment.” The elderly runner paused for breath. “Nothing quite like bounding through the heather first thing in the morning. Now, who might you be?”

“Do you remember who won the 400 metres in the match against Loughborough Grammar in 1978?” Alex had come up with the unusual icebreaker for the often mercurial figure on the other end of the phone not long after his call to his old school’s heritage secretary late on the previous afternoon, and Serena’s follow up with directory enquiries. He had been hardly surprised to hear that one of life’s eccentrics had chosen retirement in the wilds of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands.

“Well, I don’t believe it.” In the final contest of an athletics season many years ago, two further unexpected victories and personal bests for the school’s team members in the 1500 metres and the triple jump, over and above the 400 metres, had secured not only an overall win against a long thought invincible rival, but also a regional schools trophy based on performance throughout the season. And it had brought one of the proudest moments of an ageing teacher’s life. “Don’t tell me, let me think now – you must be Harris, Alan Harris?”

“Alex. How’s retirement treating you, Sid?”

“Couldn’t ask for more, my dear chap. Wonderful scenery, peace and tranquillity, and I can run through the glens with my dogs, and then come home and read to my heart’s content.” They reminisced for a few minutes. “So what’s led you to call on an old buffer like me so early in the morning?”

“This is going to surprise you. I need help with some Latin.”

The old schoolmaster roared with laughter. “Latin? You? After all these years?”

“Look on the bright side, Sid. If it hadn’t been for your bellowing, I might never have run a 400 so fast. I just wish I’d brought the Noddy book into my last lesson.” Alex remembered how his ineptitude in one of Parry’s Latin classes had provoked a stentorian rebuke coupled with a sarcastic suggestion about alternative reading matter for the next occasion.

The bellow on this occasion was in mirth rather than anger. Parry finally collected himself again. “OK, fire away.”

“Could you by any chance look something up for me? It’s a missing word in a sequence. The first three are ‘Thybrim multo spumantem’ and I need to know the last one.”

“It’s ‘Tee-brim’, not ‘Thigh-brim’, you silly boy!” For a moment Parry imagined he was standing in front of a classroom once more. “I bet you never knew there’s quite a story behind that verse.”

“Oh, really?” Alex thought it judicious to let his former athletics coach indulge in his other lifelong passion outside of competitive sport, rather than press him for a quick answer…

“You must know of the so-called Rivers of Blood speech, and what it did for the political career of Enoch Powell? Brilliant classical scholar. Well, what happened to him was all a complete travesty, because he never used those words at all. What the poor chap said was ‘Like the Roman I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. And it was all based on a direct translation of a piece of prophecy from one of the greatest works that Latin literature ever bestowed upon us.”

“What work was that?” Alex attempted a small prompt to nudge Parry back on track.

“Virgil’s Aeneid, my dear chap. Brilliant work. “

“So you can find the missing word for me?”

“Find it? I’ve been acquainted with that literary feast for over fifty years. It’s in Book 6, where Aeneas is seeking a prophecy from the Cumaean Sibyl.” Alex struggled to stay focused. “The verse runs ‘Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’. So your missing word is ‘sanguine’, my dear chap.”

“Did I catch that right – ‘San-Gwyn-Ay’?” Parry gave a confirmatory grunt. “Can you spell that for me?” Parry did so and Alex checked and double checked that he had written it down correctly.

“You’ve been most helpful, Sid.” They reminisced for a while before Parry remembered the impatient terriers at his feet and ended the call.

And as he replaced the receiver, it suddenly dawned on Alex, thanks to his former teacher’s wide ranging knowledge of how that particular item of Latin verse had been used in more recent times, that the potential star witness who was still just out of reach had been safeguarding his electronic secrets with a dual lock code that would be an amusing riddle to a classics graduate...

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So what was the story behind the verse? Why did Alex need it translated? And what made him decide to call a former teacher? You could always read Hatred Ridicule & Contempt to find out. Links to Kindle (etc) on the right, prologue above. Still a screaming bargain.

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