What’s Latin for failure?


ONE of the most common nightmares, I have been led to believe, involves sitting an exam for which one is completely unprepared. In my case, it actually happened – and on purpose.

In 1973 I was taking A-levels in English, French, Latin and General Studies at Nelson Grammar School in Lancashire. My parents wanted me to be a solicitor and I had an offer from Leeds University to study law, conditional on my gaining three C-grades including Latin.

I had already sailed through the English exams when my attention was drawn to an advert in the Burnley Evening Star, headed: ‘So you want to be a journalist’. It specified that the successful candidate would have English and at least one other A-level. I persuaded mum and dad that I should apply ‘just in case I don’t get my grades’.

A few days later I was on the bus to Burnley for an interview. Entering the newsroom I encountered a dense fug of cigarette smoke through which could be discerned mainly young men and women with their feet on the desk, telling jokes, drinking coffee and, in the case of one chap, a can of beer. I was home.

I was invited to sit at the desk of the editor’s secretary, a comely wench, to wait for the boss to finish a phone call. From there I could see all that was going on in the newsroom, including an older guy surreptitiously removing a bottle of vodka from his desk drawer and taking a swig. The editor, an affable cove named Dennis Taylor, eventually called me into his office. We had a chat and hit it off immediately, especially after he asked me what newspapers we took at home and I replied: ‘The Guardian and the Evening Star,’ a bare-faced lie. After I successfully completed a straightforward written general knowledge test he offered me a job on the spot. Ashworth, Journalist. On the bus home it hit me: I didn’t have to pass Latin any longer, so there was no need to revise it.

The night before my first Latin exam, when I should have been crammed to the gills with Virgil and Cicero, I went to the Bull Hotel and got legless.

In the examination hall next morning I turned over the paper and through my hangover could hardly read the questions, let alone answer them. Needless to say, I failed Latin but passed the other three A-levels and received a rapturous phone call from Dennis welcoming me to the fold, followed by a letter from Leeds giving me the bum’s rush. Mum and Dad had their suspicions about my exam results, but I convinced them that it was better to be a happy journalist than a miserable lawyer. It softened the blow when they realised they didn’t have to pay my keep for the next three years.

It was only in later life that I came to appreciate my Latin education. In classes I had suffered paralysing ennui, once actually finding slumber and waking to find the teacher shaking my shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with you, Ashworth?’ he demanded. ‘Bored, sir. It’s a dead language, isn’t it?’ A master worth his salt would have replied: ‘No, it isn’t, because it lives on in many modern languages. And you’ll find it invaluable in English because a) it helps you to spell correctly and b) it enlarges your vocabulary.’ But, being a dull and humourless dolt, he merely warned me to work harder ‘unless you want to fail’.

Recipe corner

THIS week another selection from the Patricia Ashworth Book of Unmessupable Comfort Food. Mum called it Egg in a Cup.

Ingredients: One slice of bread. Butter. One large free-range egg. Salt. Pepper.

Method: Soft-boil the egg (should take four minutes). Meanwhile butter the bread. Put the egg in cold water and then shell it. Chop up the bread and butter and place in a mug. Add the shelled egg and mash it up with a fork. Add salt and pepper.

As a three-year-old this was my favourite food. One day at nursery school a teacher asked me what I’d had for breakfast. I replied: ‘Egg in a cup’.

‘You mean a boiled egg, Alan.’

‘No, EGG IN A CUP!!!! It’s got bread and butter with it and it’s not in an egg cup.’

‘Really? I don’t think so.’

No wonder I had a lifelong mistrust of teachers.

Les Dawson? Never heard of him

AFTER a good few years’ hard labour on the Daily Mail, a friend moved to the Telegraph, whence this memory comes. He tells me: ‘On the day Les Dawson died, the night editor David Lucas was laying out page one with the main picture of the great comedian. The editor, the lofty Max Hastings, appeared from his office to see what was going into his paper before leaving for some smart event elsewhere. Hastings stared at the picture of Dawson and said to Lucas, “Who’s this chap, then?”

‘Lucas replied, “He’s our greatest comedian and he’s just died.”

‘The intellectual editor then said sniffily, “Is that so? Must have slipped under my radar”. Lucas’s reply to his ignorance is not recorded.’

By the way, the friend is a fellow founder-member of a luncheon club formed a few years ago. We call it the Association of Retired Sub Editors. Or Arse, for short.

New balls, please

IN response to last week’s column our friend Tom, another Arse member, emailed me to say: ‘Your “Go, Nads!” story jogged my memory of the best sports headline (possibly the best headline of any sort) I ever read.  

‘It was in the Sunday Mirror, above a short report of a Tranmere match. Jason McAteer, then a star signing for Tranmere, was complaining that when the ref’s back was turned, a rival player had squeezed him in the goolies, trying to get him to retaliate and possibly sent off. The headline was . . .  

Jason and the arrgh gonads 

A PS from PG

The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked like he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When’.

PG Wodehouse: Carry on, Jeeves


One Reply to “What’s Latin for failure?”

  1. One of the best newspaper headlines I ever saw concerned a group of neighbours whose houses had been dwarfed by a newly built, and massive, Ikea store. The view from each of their back windows was filled with the enormous yellow “Ikea” sign, illuminated all night.

    The headline (I can’t remember which paper it was):


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