A Eulogy for My Old Latin Teacher, Roger Terence Davies

RTD, in his later years

The great Mark O'Gorman, aka Markoi, has asked me to say a few words about Roger Davies and so, of course, I must obey.
For duty, duty must be done
The rule applies to everyone
Though painful though that duty be
To shirk the task, oh fiddledee!

A much younger RTD
Roger Terence Davies, RTD, the Rather Tubby Dinosaur or dinosaurus pinguior, was my favourite teacher at Lord Wandsworth College, otherwise known as LWC, or the London Water Closet, as I usually called it when I was a student here. RTD taught Latin and double Latin with him on a Friday was the highlight of my week. Not surprisingly, I went on from GCSE O Level Latin to do Latin A level and then Classics at Oxford. Since graduating, I have been a primary teacher in one or two places around the world. I think that it is no exaggeration for me to say that Roger probably had more influence upon the course of my life any other person.

Caecilius is very much alive!
What do I remember most about Roger’s teaching? Of course, dull and stupid people often say that Latin is a dead language. In reply to this poisonous platitude, Roger would snap back straight away and he would say that you might as well say that Beethoven is dead music, or that Michelangelo is dead art or that Shakespeare is dead literature.

Now you might perhaps ask, “Why bother to learn anything about the past?” Well, this is a eulogy, not a philosophy lecture, but Roger had the great teacher’s ability to make the past come alive, to make it understandable and above all to make it interesting, to make it fun. I remember, as a teenager, how disappointed I was to learn that they no longer speak Latin in Latin America.

But whether he was discussing Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius or Sallust’s pen portrait of that naughty lady Sempronia, Roger breathed into Latin his inimitable enthusiasm and his lively sense of fun. Even old exam papers were good for a laugh because they produced some memorable mistranslations. For example, Pliny’s letter about the suicide of the lady Arria had pugionem sumpsit wrongly rendered as “she drank the dagger” and navem piscatorem conduxit was mistranslatedshe hired a drunken sailor”.

RTD was particularly good at silly jokes and ridiculous rhymes that made things stick in your memory. The principal parts of the verb fero, feri, tuli, latum – to lift, to remove or destroy – will always remain in my mind as “the dustbin verb”. Intermingled with Latin grammar would be RTD’s comments about bottom pinchers in Rome (ladies should avoid the bus-stop outside the Coliseum). When describing his trip to Pompeii, Roger told how he climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius, where there was an Italian ice-cream seller loudly shouting, “Gelati! Gelati!”     

Roger loved poetry and I am sure that his spirit was glad to hear some verses in Latin today, at his memorial service. Roger was very good at explaining the different metres used by the Roman poets. Who could ever forget what a hexameter sounds like, with RTD’s memorable example?
Down in a deep dark cave sat an old cow chewing a fruit gum?

Humour was an essential part of Roger’s teaching. I was not at all surprised when he invited me to see a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum because funny things were always happening in our Latin lessons.

RTD, in thespian mode
Which brings me to another of Roger’s passions - or should I say obsessions? RTD was an ardent thespian and his love of the theatre often rubbed off onto his students. As a stalwart member of the Fleet Players and a devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan, the dinosaurus pinguior gave us a role model, an example to follow. Like all true professionals, he made it look easy. I must mention the names of two old Sternians whose acting talents RTD encouraged, namely Mark Whittow and Malcolm Reynes. Sadly, neither Mark nor Malcolm are with us anymore, but I am sure that their spirits would acknowledge RTD’s positive influence.

Roger’s generosity often took the form of taking his students to the theatre. RTD, Markoi and I were in the audience for a memorable performance of Move Over, Mrs Markham. In the interval, we met one of the actors in the bar and he said, “It’s you, isn’t it? I told the rest of the cast, there are some chaps in the front row who laugh at every single dirty joke.” Oh, the benefits of a public school education!

Is that the jacket he wore in "The Ghost Train"?
Whether as the alcoholic Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace, or the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, or that upper class twit Teddy Deakin in The Ghost Train, the theatre was a splendid vehicle for RTD’s comic talents.
Something appealing,
Something appalling,
Something for everyone,
A comedy tonight!

Another great love of Roger’s life was, of course, wine. As a lifelong member of The Sunday Times Wine Club, matters oenological and viticultural were dear to his heart. Roger did not just drink wine. He learned about it, he researched it, he studied it, discussed it and joked about it.
If bar drinks go metric, then I hope it will be schooner rather than litre.

Food was another hobby of this bon vivant, this arbiter elegantiae. Roger loved good food because it was an occasion for good company and humour. There used to be an Italian restaurant in Hartley Wintney, Tullio’s, and maybe it is still there. Of course, Roger went there often and the lady who owned the restaurant told me that her customers would ask her, “Is Roger coming in tonight? Is Roger going to be there?” I think that says a lot about RTD’s character, about his friendly and chatty nature.

Last year I was teaching in southern China and I had to do an extra-curricular activity for my Chinese students. I could not be bothered to do a Chess Club again (sorry, James Pratt). I certainly did not want to do anything vaguely sporting, so instead I offered Latin. Yes, once more I found that in the Cambridge Latin Course, Caecilius is still in horto. By the way, Grumio is still doing the cooking and that naughty dog Cerberus continues to enjoy barking and jumping onto tables. Metella, of course, is still a matrona Romana and a grumpy old hag.
Metella, Caecilius's dear wife

For me, this was a rather strange experience, doing something I had not for more than forty years, like switching on a time machine. It was almost like listening to Roger’s voice once more and I even found myself leaning my head over to one side and putting two fingers on my neck. How strange that I was teaching things that RTD had taught me, forty years later and on the other side of the world!

Roger with his hands full
Catullus’s poem about Sirmio ends with the verse ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum. Roughly translated means, “Laugh with whatever laughter you have in your home”. Therefore I would like to end this eulogy with one of Roger’s jokes, a joke RTD told me more than forty years ago and a joke which I told my students when I was teaching in China.

There were two mice and they were in the kitchen, about to eat some cheese. Suddenly the cat appears and so the mice have to run for their hole. The mice just get to their hole in time and one mouse turn to the other one and says, “Wow! That was close. The cat nearly caught us.” Then they hear woof! Woof! Meow! Meow! Woof! Woof! Then silence. So the first mouse turn to the second mouse and says, “I know what happened. The dog has come along and chased the cat away. Now we can go out and eat the cheese.” So the two mice go out and they are just about to start eating the cheese when the cat jumps out and kills them both. And just as the cat is eating the last piece of mouse, the cat smiles and says, “You know, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to speak a foreign language.”

RTD's Memorial Service in the Gavin Hall at Lord Wandsworth College

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast, to Roger Terence Davies, RTD, the Rather Tubby Dinosaur. God bless him!


I would like to pay tribute to the Rev. Robin Craig's excellent and very moving eulogy for RTD that he gave at Roger's memorial service. 
   

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