Major Forrest looms over my childhood much as the Messines Ridge must have loomed over his infantry division during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1916.
It’s perhaps more than a coincidence that Major Forrest spent 4 years––1966-70––attempting to teach me Latin, exactly the same amount of time he spent fighting the Germans during WW1. At this point the similarities end however. By 1918 he’d driven the Germans out of Flanders, but by 1970 I still couldn’t decline Latin nouns.
By 1966 most British schools were beginning to phase out Latin in favor of ‘weirdy-beardy’ subjects such as Physics and Chemistry, and the schools that did continue to teach Latin were beginning to experiment with new methods. There was Winnie the Pooh in Latin, and perhaps less illogically there were Asterix the Gaul comics in Latin. I even heard there was a Batman comic in Latin!
None of this modernist balderdash had the slightest effect on Major Forrest. The purity of Julius Ceasar’s prose in ‘The Gallic Wars’ had been good enough for him as boy––probably during the Gallic Wars––and it would be good enough for us. Major Forrest’s strategy for conquering our ignorance of Latin verbs was exactly the same as Ceasar’s strategy with the Huns, and with Major Forrest’s own strategy against Ludendorrf:
Iron discipline and cold steel.
Each morning at 8:45 precisely we were ordered to stand to, with our pencils sharpened like javelins (pilum?), and Major Forrest led us forward into a digest of the Gallic Wars which was called First Steps in Latin. There was a Second Steps in Latin, but like the German Breastworks at Vimmy Ridge, we never got there.
The noise was hallacious. Major Forrest could be heard conjugating verbs in Portslade, two miles away. Even worse, the human toll was staggering. I never survived more than the first few minutes of the class, before stumbling into a deep crater of my imagination.
My favorite daydream involved my Auntie Shirley (she wasn’t a relative, but was married to my mother’s younger brother). She looked very like the British actress, Diana Rigg, the star of the TV show, the Avengers. She often came to our house, and I would follow her around like a lost remora from the moment she arrived to the moment she left.
Both Dianna Rigg and Auntie Shirley had jet black hair, framing heart-shaped faces, that featured slightly upturned brown eyes, and small, but gentle mouths that would easily spread into impish grins. They dressed slightly differently though. In her role as private eye Emma Peel, Dianna Rigg would often wear skin-tight, one-piece leather overalls. Auntie Shirley, on the other hand, favored pastel colored cardigans and tweed skirts. What daydreams I had! Auntie Shirley, dressed in her lavender twin-set, would track down evil scientists, while I would be her sidekick, John Steed, saving the world with my immaculate manners.
All too soon a stupendous explosion would reverberate across the no man’s land of the Lower Sixth classroom. “Briant! Pull yourself together! Decline Ceasar!”
I would mumble a few nonsense words that I hoped sounded like Latin.
“Come on, Boy,” Major Forrest would say, suddenly gentler, realizing I was terrified––and who wouldn’t be––but the attack was going well. “Come on, lad. Nominative, vocative, genitive, accusative…”
“Caesar, Caesaro, Caesari,” whispered Bill Gornall-King from just behind me.
“Don’t tell him, you buffoon!” yelled Major Forrest, no longer gentle.
There’s a story that in the heat of the Battle of Passchendaele, the archangel Michael appeared, riding a golden stallion. The British and German soldiers threw down their rifles, dropped to their knees in the mud, and gave thanks to the Almighty. There was no more fighting that day.
It’s probably a total myth, but unexplainable things did happen. Just as my friend Bill reached the vocative of Caesar the school bell rang. Its golden tones leaping from desk to desk. No angel could be as sweet as that sound. Not even Auntie Shirley’s arrival at our front door was as welcome.
There would be no more Latin that day, or at least not until Double Latin in the afternoon.
Instead there would be Algebra.
I threw down my First Steps in Latin, collapsed face down on my desk and gave thanks to the soul of the one man who knew how to approach Julis Ceasar: Marcus Junius Brutus.