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Childhood memories

Another of my father's quaint notions was the belief that a civilised man had to know Latin. Strangely the local populace did not share this view, and Latin was not taught at the Upwey High School, so my father enquired around, and discovered that Hillary Dowling, a nice old gentleman who was a lay preacher at the Church of England in Olinda, and who took the Sunday School class, would be prepared to teach me Latin after school. So it was arranged that twice a week I would get off at Olinda, and walk to his home nearby for a half hour dose of Latin.

This proved to be much less painful than I had feared, as Mr Dowling had been an analytical chemist and an amateur photographer, had a microscope, and was very interested in science. So after I had done penance with the Latin he would teach me something interesting.

The analytical chemistry he had practised was largely based on heating samples of the material to be analysed on a carbon block, using a blowpipe to deflect the flame of a spirit lamp onto them. The blowpipe was simply a tube with a fine nozzle at one end, and a mouthpiece to the other. By manipulating the flame, and the way you blew into the blowpipe you could produce either an oxidising or a reducing flame, and by observing what happened to the sample you could get some idea of its contents. For example you could identify some chemicals by their different coloured flames and oxides, and you could reduce many metallic salts to the metal with a reducing flame.

His photography had all been practised in the 20s, using folding cameras taking sensitised glass plates. He gave me a half plate camera, which must have cost a fortune, as it had a double extension -- if you fully extended both bellows you could get a magnification of about two, a rising front for architectural photography, and a bellows actuator for the shutter so that you could operate the camera remotely with a rubber bulb.

When the camera was all folded up it made a leather covered wooden box about 300 x 300 x 200 mm. Before you started you had to load the plate holders (each of which held two plates) with fresh plates in a darkroom. Then, with the camera on a tripod, you would lower the front and back, put a hood over the back of the camera so that you could see the image on the ground glass focusing screen, open the shutter and move the lens backwards and forwards to focus the image.

Once you had got the camera focused you had to close the shutter, insert a plateholder, remove the safety slide to uncover the plate and operate the shutter to make the exposure. Then you replaced the safety slide, took out the plateholder, and started again with the next photo.

When I got to University I discovered that his analytical chemistry was very out of date, but the knowledge of microscopy, plant physiology and photography he gave me was well worthwhile.

And the Latin? I don't think it paid any serious part in my development, but it was useful in my botanical studies, and it illuminated many aspects of grammar which had been glossed over at school. It also gave me an interest in the structure of language, in the way different people expressed ideas, and in how the psychology of different races was influenced by the structure and limitations of their languages.

 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

Latin - and more interesting things