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Diary: I hope Boris proves his old tutor wrong

Boris Johnson (Getty)

What a pleasure it is to listen to the Vatican news in Latin – or Hebdomada Papae, notitiae vaticanae latine redditae, to give the broadcast its wonderfully unwieldy, proper name.

Last week, the first edition was aired. The announcer, Massimiliano Menichetti, speaks Latin beautifully. His Latin is well enunciated – you can hear every word. But he also speaks it fluently and quite quickly, just like a living language. And so you get as close as you can to that impossible dream – hearing Latin as it was said by the ancient Romans.

Menichetti speaks Latin as I’ve always thought it might be spoken – very like Italian, but with more consonants at the end of words, rubbed down to vowels over the millennia.

Why is it such a delight to listen to well-spoken Latin? I fear part of the pleasure comes from intellectual snobbery. Because I studied Latin at school and university, I can pat myself on the back for recognising several of Menichetti’s words.

Some of the pleasure comes, too, from connecting the old with the new and working out the journey in between. In AN Wilson’s recent study of the Bible – The Book of the People – he says how often his conversations settle on the age-old question of how “this became that”; how the ancient this became the modern that. And how enjoyable those “this and that” conversations are.

But the real delight in listening to Latin is to hear a language that was used in such an early stage of Western civilisation and is now, on the Vatican News website, used to describe modern things.

Virginia Woolf is good on this in her 1925 essay, “On Not Knowing Greek” – even if she is talking about Greek, not Latin. She did, of course, know her Greek – she studied it, along with Latin, history and German, at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901.

Woolf said we didn’t really know the Greeks: how they laughed or how they spoke; just as we don’t know how the Romans spoke Latin.

The Greeks are unknowable, Woolf said, because they are so removed in time from us; because their weather led to an outdoors life, so unlike our cold, northern, indoors existence.

But it is in Greek literature that you find the original human being. Electra, Odysseus and Achilles are saying and doing things that had never been described before – and have been imitated, and often improved upon, by us intellectual dwarves who followed in the wake of Sophocles and Homer.

We meet humans before, in Woolf’s words, “their emotions have been worn into uniformity”. We read about emotions expressed in a primeval way, in the way modern humans perceive pleasure and pain without transcribing them in words, in their mind or out loud; when “The meaning [of the Greek words] is just on the far side of language.”

Latin is, of course, that much later than Greek. But the pleasure in listening to it is the same as listening to Greek – and modern Greek is astonishingly similar to ancient Greek. I can get round Greece and read its road signs and restaurant menus pretty much on my knowledge of ancient Greek.

When I listen to Massimiliano Menichetti read the news in Latin, I’m hearing the language that Virgil and Horace spoke, that the terrified inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum yelled as Vesuvius erupted. What a thrill.

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Talking of Latin, it looks as if we’re about to get a pretty good Latinist inside Downing Street. I once asked one of Boris Johnson’s old Oxford Classics tutors what sort of Prime Minister he would be.

Capax imperii nisi imperasset …” said the old tutor, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: “He was up to the job of emperor as long as he never became emperor.”

I do hope Boris proves his old tutor wrong.

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Bicycling through London on a hot day recently, my shirt unbuttoned, I happened to bump into the World Naked Bike Ride.

Hundreds of bicyclists of all ages – mostly completely starkers – came racing down Piccadilly and Regent Street, meeting in a river of flesh at Piccadilly Circus.
Most of them were smiling and laughing; partly out of joy but also, I think, as an embarrassment-deflection mechanism.

I didn’t disapprove of them but I certainly didn’t want to be mistaken for a World Naked Bicyclist. I considered doing up my shirt to differentiate myself but thought it would look a little po-faced.

Still, I did end up seeing the point of clothes. Only the youngest and fittest bicyclists looked appealing in their birthday suits. Thank God Adam and Eve both ate the forbidden fruit.

Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)