A Latin lover at Leeds town hall

I was never that good at Latin but I loved studying it and persevered until I was 17. When I arrived at university they told me I had to do some language studies for my first year alongside my degree, so I asked if I could do Latin. I think that this was the first time that anyone in the faculty of agriculture had made such a request, which is surprising given that all plants have Latin names. You’d have thought that there would have been more of a demand for it but the sad fact is that Latin speakers (not that I would dream of counting myself as one of them) are as rare as hen’s teeth, even though the subject continues to be taught in some British schools.

But Newcastle University was very accommodating and I spent a satisfying year being taught by the incomparable Peter Jones. (He really is incomparable. I am regularly chastised by readers for my gushing adjectives but I assure you that in this case this particular one is entirely justified.) Thirty years later Peter is still educating me on the classics, via the medium of his weekly column in The Spectator.

And thank goodness for that. For my Latin, such as it is, came in very useful recently. I was about to give a speech at Leeds Town Hall to several hundred young people from all over the north of England and was sitting in the front row waiting for the event to start. I started to look around me and noticed that Leeds Town Hall is a remarkable example of Victorian architecture, every bit as imposing as, say, St Pancras station in London. That goes for its interior as well as its exterior. I was transfixed by the size of the organ at the end of the main room. Who puts an organ in a town hall these days? Well, the good people of Leeds did in 1858 and it is still going strong today.

But then I moved my gaze to the ceiling, where I encountered lots of Latin. There were translations, too, although they were translated in very Victorian English. Labor Omnia Vincit was translated as “Industry overcomes all things”. Industry is certainly a word I associate with Leeds. When the town hall went up, Leeds was a heartland of the industrial north and the building a potent symbol of its industrial success. But of course, in the case of the translation, the word industry was used in the sense of “hard work”, thus “Hard work conquers all”.

When my time to speak came, I stood up and drew my audience’s attention to the ceiling. “Hard work conquers all.” Does it, I asked? It is certainly necessary. But as students of logic know, something may well be necessary but that may not be enough to make it happen. I personally believe that if you want to achieve anything really meaningful in life, you have to not only work hard but also build relationships with other people who can help you achieve your goals. There is no such sentence as “I can’t do it”, I told my audience. The sentence needs one word to finish it – “I can’t do it alone”.

I am not the first person, it turns out, to look up at the ceiling of Leeds Town Hall and draw inspiration for a speech. Jim Callaghan also did so once, in an election rally; you can imagine that the then prime minister and leader of the Labour party would have loved a slogan such as Labor Omnia Vincit. Except, of course, that he presided over the winter of discontent, when not much work was done at all.

You don’t have to be a Weekend FT columnist or the prime minister to visit Leeds Town Hall; I have discovered that they do town hall tours for a bargain £4. This includes the bits I didn’t see – the prison cells underneath and the clock tower, which I bet has even better views of the city than I did on my approach to Leeds/Bradford Airport. The descent was very bumpy and my financial controller, accompanying me, had to put a plastic file to an even rarer use than my Latin gets.


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