The Chancellor’s Latin

The Chancellor’s many accomplishments did not include much, if any, knowledge of Latin. This was a problem, because the ceremony to confer honorary degrees, over which he had to preside, was conducted in that language. Of course, like a church service, a good deal was formulaic patter, relatively easy to master. The eulogies for the honorands (specifically those personally selected by the Chancellor himself) were a different matter. Although only a short paragraph in length, each had to encapsulate the subject’s distinctive merits in a combination of precision and ornateness, well suited to the Chancellor’s style of speech and writing in English. But putting the paragraph into Latin suitable for a grand public occasion required an aid operation.

The first two stages were easy enough. The Chancellor would write an oratorical miniature and send it off to a nominated classics don at the university. This scholar, doubtless currente calamo, would turn the English into an elegant piece of laudatory Latin.

Then arose the difficulties, which were of understanding and of pronunciation. The Chancellor needed to know where his descriptions and sentiments had got to in the lapidary and reordered Latin. He also needed guidance on the quantities, rhythms and emphases of the spoken Latin paragraphs.

I was the one member (an in-law) of the Chancellor’s immediate family whose Latin, though rusty, was shakily good enough to qualify me as informal tutor.

This was the drill. The Chancellor’s secretary faxed through both the English and Latin versions of the eulogies. In the (non) style of Loeb’s Classics, I produced a literal retranslation of the Latin paragraphs, and marked them up for spoken delivery. The Chancellor and I would then meet and run through the by now three variants until he was satisfied that he had an ad hoc understanding of the Latin. Then I coached him in reading the Latin aloud as the final step in his preparation. All this was done with his usual ferocious concentration and not without his usual impatience with any obstacles – in this case the difficulty of Latin comprehension and my often hesitant guidance thereto.

In this manner I supported the Chancellor in advance of two or three degree ceremonies. After that, I suppose, he grew confident enough to do without my help – or perhaps he asked the don to play Loeb as well as Cicero.

One of our tutorial meetings was over lunch at Brooks’s. A waiter, seeing my dictionary and papers spread out on the table, approached to issue a reprimand – conducting ‘business’ was against club rules. Not so, said Roy Jenkins, politely waving him away. We were engaged on higher matters than commerce. Dominus illuminatio mea.

The Chancellor’s Cellar

Had the flight of stone steps been steeper and deeper and the door stouter, Roy’s wine cellar would have pleased Edgar Allan Poe. However its roof was the floorboards of the sitting room above. But its walls were old brick and it was dark, lit by a couple of bare bulbs of excessive dimness. Any natural light from airbricks were blacked out by very ancient and heavy drapes.

On descending in a head-protecting crouch, two distinct areas were apparent through the gloom. Along the left wall were the ‘every day’ racks, with large quantities of Wine Society or Berry’s ‘ordinary claret’ and some token bottles of white (often Muscadet). There were of course on this Mur Gauche better bottles of claret, but nothing which would be out of the ordinary in the collection of any reasonably well-off wine buff.

Turn to the right, however, and the myth about Roy’s love of the ‘finest wines available to humanity’ (cf Withnail and I) would be confirmed. Here lay the grand crus in decent but not massive numbers.

The getting of this trove was not so much the work of Roy’s money as his reputation. The myth ensured that individuals and institutions with deep pockets all knew a priori what would be the appropriate gift on those many occasions in Roy’s career when gifts were properly to be offered. Thus in great degree the Mur Droit of the cellar was sustained. (This is not to deny that Roy ever made fine wine purchases.)

Roy, as is known, drank copiously; but day-to-day the bottles came from the Mur Gauche. The Mur Droit supplied his celebrated lunches and occasional dinners.

The ceremony of bringing up the bottles was sacerdotal, performed by Roy without assistance – the only chore undertaken by him within the house.

I am not sure how Roy kept track of the Mur Droit bottles, or chose wines for each meal, apart from through his phenomenal memory. There was no formal cellar book, although at one point in the 1990s a grandson had been charged with producing a catalogue (a project which petered out).

After his death the collection had to be investigated bottle by bottle. Inevitably the damp had destroyed many labels. There were therefore blind tastings without arbitration. Although it is possible that some priceless bottles were sacrilegiously and ignorantly quaffed, the majority of the anonymous bottles were long ‘gone’. Sic transit.