Don's Diary

January 1, 1999

Monday. Admissions week. A year of letter writing, school visits, sixth-form conferences and open days has all been leading up to this point, and now 14 young classicists are about to descend on St Anne's in search of maybe seven places. An even mix of state and public schools, men and women has emerged. Some will have been learning Greek and Latin for as much as ten years, others for as many as four, others still will have never had the chance at all. How to choose?

Tuesday

The students arrive late in the afternoon. We offer them a glass of wine before supper. This is meant to make them feel relaxed and at home and to convince them that we belong to the same species. It probably has the opposite effect. They face a lot the next day, and those with only Latin or no linguistic training at all can scarcely relish the prospect of the language aptitude test. Much of this centres on the logical analysis of an invented system. Told that "Chup chup Srebrenice serozor chippy chan" means "The dog bit the farmer's bottom", it is amazing how many of them correctly deduce that "Chipmunk mogadon Gorozny Karabach" must translate as "'First offence, your honour,' pleaded the wolfhound."

Wednesday

The language tests occupy much of the morning. Next step, the interview. While my colleague Roger Crisp puts them through their paces in philosophy, I spend all day asking questions about the anger of Achilles or the attitude of Virgil to the Augustan state. It is rumoured that this year's Latin A-level text was meant to be Book Two of the Aeneid but that someone noted this down in Roman numerals and Book II soon became the rather surprising Book 11. So glad that I read it again in the summer and composed a talk on the subject: "The Roman Homer - The Epic Voice of Aeneid 11". It has some claim by now to be the hardest working sixth-form lecture in show business. One of my applicants has had the misfortune to hear it twice. I ask him about Herodotus instead. Come the evening, Roger and I emerge shattered from our offices and repair to a restaurant to consider our verdict.

Thursday

While the applicants linger in college, we head off to the annual inter-collegiate Classics bun fight. The marks from the language tests have now been meticulously compiled, and it is possible to offer a preliminary declaration of intent. Colleges with plenty of spare applicants then release them to others with fewer for more interviews. Roger and I decide to call five more people. When asked whether she has any questions for us, one young woman invites my suggestions for further reading during her year off. Taken aback by this show of idealism I mutter something about the comedies of Plautus and Terence being the key to Roman culture. The candidate responds with a look blending bafflement and pity. I turn round and note that Roger is wearing much the same expression.

Thursday week

The happiest day of the year. Final decisions are announced and I am able to contact those students to whom we have decided to make offers. One mother rings from Hitchin to let me know that she had to take her daughter straight back from interview to hospital, that the poor thing has been terribly unwell and has lost half a stone in weight. I tell her that I have some news that may improve her daughter's condition. Vague sounds of maternal delight somewhere in Hertfordshire.

Matthew Leigh is a fellow and tutor in classical languages and literature at St Anne's College, Oxford. He is busy studying Plautus and Terence.

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