Richard Hoyes tries that Latin beat

27th October 2000 at 01:00
When I wear this T-shirt in Scunny I get funny looks. Scunthorpe's my birthplace - if you look closely you might just discern the town motto printed neatly on the front of me. It belongs to that period when mottoes were written in Latin. Scunthorpe's was written in characters as clear and incisive as British Steel: Caelum refulget nos labores (Heaven reflecteth our labours). When I was a lad I'd look up into the night sky and see the orange glow that dimmed out the stars and confirmed that the furnaces were smelting; that steel came from Scunthorpe; that God was in his Heaven; that all was right with the world.

Things have changed. As writer Will Self said recently to Paul Merton when consigning "tawdry beliefs" to BBC2's Room 101, the place where you dump the stuff that really hacks you off: "people used to believe in logos, Greek for the word of God. Now they just believe in logos." People in Scunny, like people everywhere, have corporate identities on their designer clothes now, and laugh at people like me with T-shirts in Latin. Schools have gone the same way. They used to have mottoes. Now they have mission statements and logos on their stationery.

Teachers have been told to learn their mission statement by heart before an inspection. But is it a creed or a tawdry belief? Scunthorpe has changed since I was a lad. The sky still glows, but only a bit. There have been massive cutbacks. And there's no British Steel any more: a year ago it joined up with a Dutch company to make a new firm called Corus.

What's in a name? Everything. Choosing the new name was "a long process, involving brainstorm sessions which generated 2,000 possible names", according to Corus News, a glossy in-house magazine handed out to employees to give them a sense of "our new powerful identity". But what the brainstormers abroad didn't know was that, until it changed its name a couple of years ago, a factory making underwear called Corah's operated successfully in Scunthorpe, and Corah's sounds like Corus. When a steelman tells you he works for Corus you have to ask him whether it's girdles or girders he's making. Steelworkers are very suspicious of their ew corporate identity, feeling that somehow the Steel as well as the British has gone out of British Steel.

My cousin Simon works for Corus in Scunthorpe and he tells me that in the computer department they laddishly manipulate the company logo (in its unadulterated state it looks like a letter C swallowing a bugle) into exotic and suggestive new shapes. A friend who teaches chemistry in Scunthorpe wittily subverts the name into a poisonous toyshop, Carbon Monoxide R Us (the R being mirror reversed), so making a mission statement into a statement about emission; turning a tawdry belief into fact.

I wonder if teachers feel the same about their corporate identities? Do they share the vision on the strapline of their new headed notepaper? Or do they look back to some golden days, before incorporation, when the skies over everybody's Scunthorpe were orange; when teachers had aspirations and those aspirations were spiritual, not corporate, logos the word of God, not logos of the high street trader; when men of steel were men of steel like the ones I remember from my student days when I worked on the melting-shop floor, when men, real men, stoked the furnaces by hand, before the age of technology replaced the industrial age; when schools and towns had mottoes in Latin and I could wear my Latin T-shirt in Scunthorpe without funny looks?

I wonder. I talked to Jeremy Hardy, satirist, columnist and broadcaster. He was a pupil at Farnham grammar school and remembers its motto, Nisi dominus frustra. It comes from the psalms of David and means: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vainthat build it". But the boys had their own translation: "Don't frustrate the masters".

So you didn't? I asked him. Oh yes he did. It seems logos, mottoes and mission statements all have one thing in common: they inspire subversion. He started his career by making fun of his teachers in stand-up comedy. Now, as a political satirist in The Guardian and on Radio 4, he makes a living out of mocking his betters.

And that gives hope for us all.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. E-mail:

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