Book Review

Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin by Mark Walker

Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin by Mark Walker

Latin Rules, OK?

Along with Peter Jones, whose Learn Ancient Greek and Learn Latin courses (subsequently published in book form) enthralled many Daily & Sunday Telegraph readers some years back, and whose Ancient and Modern column continues to adorn The Spectator, Mark Walker should be declared a national treasure.

Walker, as the Greeks and Romans would have styled him, is an opsimath, coming to Latin as an adult. Having mastered it, he has devised a course, Latin For Everyday Life, which he now offers to fellow late learners through the Buckinghamshire Adult Education programme, combining this in true classical style with expertise in guitar and mandolin, also on his didactic menu.

For the Latin course, Walker has produced two books: Annus Horribilis (the Queen's most famous excursion into ancient tongues) and Annus Mirabilis (which I equate with whatever year England wins The Ashes), respectively sub-titled Latin for Everyday Life and More Latin for Everyday Life. Their readers will be hoping for Still More Latin, Yet More Latin, and (as Mrs Thatcher famously wished) to go on and on.

Now, Walker gives us Britannica Latina: 2000 Years of British Latin, proclaiming via the dust-jacket blurb "It is time for British Latinists who reclaim their heritage." It is, indeed, when we contemplate ignoramus philistines in departments and ministries of education who dismiss Latin and Greek as 'dead' and ancient history as 'elitist' and/or 'irrelevant'.

This elegant 'libellus' (except for the miniscule Latin print - you need the Hubble Telescope) provides a well-chosen miscellany of texts, from Julius Caesar and Suetonius for introductory background, via British historians (Bede, Gildas, Nennius) scientists (the two Bacons - The Two Ronnies don't qualify, Harvey, Newton), Renaissance Goonery (George Ruggles' Ignoramus playlet), poets (Bourne, Buchanan, Landor, Swift), down to modern Anglo-Latin verse, including Walker's own skilful paean to his stamping-ground of Coombe Hill.

I could have done with more of this last category, for instance something from the cleverest of modern practitioners, A.D. Godley, James Joyce's recently discovered Balia, and so on. On his own evidence, P.G. Wodehouse's favourite pastime at Dulwich was writing Greek and Latin verse. A fellow (though not overlapping) Dulwichian, Raymond Chandler, credited the Classics for his initimable English prose. So did that other lapidary stylist, Muriel Spark. I spent three years in the Classical Sixth doing verse composition in both languages. It is the best way to appreciating the originals' metrical dexterity, also the reason I can still quote chunks of English poetry by heart.

A lavish amount of Fortean material includes King Arthur's astonishing fightng feats and no less remarkable bodily preservation; Merlin the Magician; St Alban's martyrdom; the Loch Ness Monster's début; a mediaeval vampire; weird lunar phenomena. Plus, a dash of soft porn with Lady Godiva's bare-backing, as told by Roger of Wendover - surely here to be re-Christened Bendover.

The nine sections comport valuable biographica and historical background, tersely informative grammatical notes, bibliographical tips, nicely spiiced with humour. Tactfully tucked away at the end are English cribs for those who like Peter Cook don't have the Latin for the judging.

Verdict: Optimus hic liber est; necnon est optimus auctor. Mark's Mark, X out of X.

-- Reviewed by Barry Baldwin on 11/05/2010

Further Information
ISBN-10: 075245160X
ISBN-13: 9780752451602
Publisher: The History Press
Publication Date: 01/10/2009
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 160

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