Jason Goodwin: ‘Our headmaster was more Gilderoy Lockhart than Dr Arnold’

The graduation ceremony of Jason Goodwin's son reminds our columnist of the latin prayers which were so prolific in his childhood.

At school, we used to assemble once a week for Latin prayers. Pater Noster, qui es in coelis… We did it for no other reason than that it had always been done, which is still a reason, and we were conscious of pronouncing the words according to the medieval English practice, when qui rhymed with why and the c in sanctifecetur was soft.

It didn’t improve my Latin, but perhaps it made me better at prayers.

The point was not to understand the words so much as to collaborate in the act. We horsed around a bit, but, on the whole, we liked the rhyme and repetition, the monkish atmosphere and feeling that the words, however dimly understood, invoked something old and wise.

It was like inhabiting, for a spectral moment, the body of an Old Master painter, a Giotto or Bellini, at work: holding the brush in the same hand, following his movements stroke for stroke and the direction of his glance as he assessed his composition. It may be what people mean when they talk of being in the presence of something larger than themselves.

‘He was a pompous, solemn humbug, but he became the vessel through which the meaning of the ceremony was conveyed’

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Our headmaster was more Gilderoy Lockhart than Dr Arnold, said to be wonderful with pupils’ mothers – and the mothers of prospective pupils especially. He was very handsome, with a full head of silver-grey hair, and partial to the flowing red-and-black academicals that went with the job.

Latin Prayers was his crowning moment. He delivered the canticles with conviction and we murmured the responses in good order, leaning into the pause at the end of his lines. He was a pompous, solemn humbug, but, in the presence of something larger than himself, he became the vessel through which the meaning of the ceremony was conveyed and he was good, as vessels go.

All this came to mind at Walter’s graduation, in which 100 or so graduands and doctors of this and that bowed and scraped their way through a traditional rite of passage largely conducted in Latin. I don’t say it wasn’t moving – the sight of dozens of young people stepping brightly forward into the light of adulthood and responsibility, full of charm and potential, is inherently touching.

The hall was crammed with parents bursting with pride. Kate and I sat in the gods and the choreography unfolded below us like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza, without the music or the spangled tights, the students making geometric shapes as they approached the dais and bowed, in turn, to the proctor, vice-chancellor and someone unidentified, but important, as the lead student held the hand of the professor presenting the cohort for approval.

You’d think an audience of parents, assembled in a Wren building by a university dignitary wearing buckled shoes and a Henrician hat, holding a silver mace, would take Latin in their stride. The vice-chancellor’s deputy wasn’t so sure; her preparatory speech sounded rather defensive about it, as if we might find it boring.

‘I thought with surprising fondness of my old headmaster, who could have knocked that vice-chancellor into a cocked hat’

As the bigwigs recited their Latin in a shuffling, sub-audible monotone, I began to suspect that amid all the theatre, between all the hat doffing and ablative absolutes, they were suffering from stage fright. You could read out the E numbers on a packet of sweets with greater brio. Only the Dean of Worcester spoke his piece loud and clear, reading from a crib concealed in his hat.

Of course, we couldn’t understand the words, but the gist was clear enough. ‘Do fidem!’ the students cried, en masse. They marched out. Later they marched in again, wearing hoods, and preceded by a bedel carrying a mace. Everyone clapped, and I thought with surprising fondness of my old headmaster, who could have knocked that vice-chancellor into a cocked hat.

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