Sidelong Glances At The PCU Characters: Colin Bimsley

Bryant and May

The old joke about mothers and fathers being unable to help their children with examination paper revisions is true. The page above comes from a current exam paper for the ages 10 – 11. Try to work out what subject it’s for. I failed.

Meanwhile, I think back to taking my 11+. The examination featured what I considered to be a series of totally irrelevant problems.

A train with nine carriages takes 75 seconds to pass through a station at 40 mph. How long is the station platform?

Who could possibly know? How on earth could I be expected to have seen the design of the station and judged the mechanical efficiency of its rolling stock? And what about the people who were waiting to get on the train – would they now all be late for work?

What is a levee?

Something you waited on, surely? Didn’t the Black and White Minstrels sing about this? I moved on to:

Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?

Well lead, obviously! A bird wouldn’t be able to take off if it weighed the same as a roof. And on I went, wrong answer after wrong answer, yet somehow I passed.

The above exam is on Spatial Awareness, one of a great many subjects which no-one thought to fit into my busy schoolboy schedule of Latin and classical history. We learned nothing remotely useful. We were passing our days in ancient Rome.

This old school poem of Cod Latin did a pretty good job of reinforcing the rhythms of that language for us;

Patres conscripti took a boat, and went to Philippi;
Boatum est upsettum, magno cum grandine venti.
Omnes drownderunt qui swim away non potuerunt.
Trumpeter unus erat, qui coatum scarlet habebat;
Et magnum periwig, tied with the tail of a dead pig.

Roughly translated as;

The conscript fathers (senators) took a boat and went to Philippi. The boat was upset by a great wind. All drowned who could not swim away. There was a trumpeter who had a scarlet coat and a great periwig, tied with the tail of a dead pig.

The metre uses Latin vowel quantities for the Latin parts, and partly follows English stress in the English parts. The classic remains the ‘Down With Skool’ version;

Caesar adsum jam forte
Brutus aderat
Caesar sic in omnibus
Brutus sic in at.

I love the blunt Northern inflection at the end.

The connection here is to the Spatial Awareness exam. In the Bryant & May novels my character Detective Sergeant Colin Bimsley suffers from Diminished Spatial Awareness, a real-life perceptual problem called Irlen Syndrome which prevents him from judging distances and makes him a liability on rooftops.

Perhaps Colin studied this subject at school – he certainly didn’t pick up any Latin. The question arises; is Latin more or less useful than spatial awareness – the so-called Tetris Exam?

27 comments on “Sidelong Glances At The PCU Characters: Colin Bimsley”

  1. Roger says:

    has anyone ever become Prime Minister because people were so impressed by his knowledge of spatial awareness that they disregarded his every other failing?

    Can spatial awareness be taught?
    If it can, why do people suffer from Irlen Syndrome ?
    If it can’t, why have exams in it?

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    I assumed the question was geometry. However, the Latin I learned at school did come in useful for (a) church plaques and gravestone comprehension, (b) understanding grammar and its parts, and (c) learning French and Spanish, and acquiring an interest in linguistics.
    Spatial awareness. Is that what prevents me ricocheting between doorframes, kitchen appliances, and falling down the steps?

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    Nil illegitimi carborundum.

  4. snowy says:

    It’s the answer sheet for a Visual Reasoning test.

    [A succession of tedious puzzles, loved by HR departments, which doesn’t test anything other than your ability to do tedious puzzles, the spacial awareness test is more subtle, carried out by seeing if you can successfully negotiate the difficulty of a door marked ‘PULL’]. [VR and SA are different].

  5. snowy says:


    Something that Bob Plant worried about.


  6. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Never done a spatial awareness test, but when my son was applying to do engineering he showed me an online thing where you had to mentally rotate objects and pick out the end result. When I had completed it, I was told I was either a man or a trained engineer.
    I’m neither of those things. It doesn’t stop me falling over my own feet or having an undetectable sense of direction though.
    Latin helped me know what debrachiate meant 😉

  7. Martin Tolley says:

    Snowy, the trick with doors is to ignore the handle text. The rule is simple – look upwards. If you can see the top of the door you can always pull it. If you can’t see the top of the door you have to push it.

  8. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘If you can see the top of the door you can always pull it. If you can’t see the top of the door you have to push it.‘

    That would never have occurred to me, but now seems obvious. Thank you.

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Our Latin master at school was nicknamed Butch. He was very large.

    We had a cod Latin poem about him-

    Butchibus sedatebus
    on the deskgolurum,
    Deskibus collapsibus
    and Butch is on the florum.

    Funny I can remember that and virtually not a word of Latin.


  10. Adam says:

    I’m still on the how long is the platform question….hold on……

  11. John Griffin says:

    My dear wife aces mental rotation tests, often saying “that’s obvious” and other galling stuff. She was pleased to know (courtesy of some cod BBC/Cambridge Aspergers test) that she had a male brain and hubby didn’t (I was 50:50). Thanks to her parents (“You’re 16, get to work in an office!”) she didn’t make it as an engineer, and now consoles herself with IKEA flatpacks and craft installations.
    Apropos the cod Latin, surely it was iam not jam? Really useful, Latin…..OK for common roots of words and ‘fun’ like the Welsh (ffenest) and French (fenetre) for window being almost identical, along with crime staples like ‘defenestration’.
    Gaudeamus igitur, iuvenes dum sumus…….

  12. Peter T says:

    Spatial awareness may be used to describe the talent of Kenny Dalgliesh, Don Bradman or Rodney Laver, knowing where things are in space around you and being able to whack them with your chosen instrument. Speaking for myself, being an engineer doesn’t seem to help with that.

    We might be good at something that’s closer to geometry, close your eyes and imagine a 3-D object or even 4-D. We might even understand a map without turning it upside down. And a lot of us are a bit Aspie, which tends to go against the previous kind of spatial awareness.

    Exams: I’ve explained before that my old headmaster reckoned doing exams was my only talent.

  13. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Io, io, nobis ad sunt, quid curius nobis, quid curius nobis nunc.

  14. Peter T says:

    … but I still don’t understand the stuff at the top of the page. – Sorry, caught the red button by accident.

  15. snowy says:

    Peter, we are being teased, what is contained in the top image is the answers to the questions, not the questions themselves.

    [Look up – Visual Reasoning – the first few results will contain a few example questions.]

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    At school basic visual awareness was called sport, throwing and catching a ball and knowing when to stop running so you didn’t hit the wall at the end of the gym.

    At our school there were a set of old fashioned swing doors, heavy wood with brass fittings, even brass kick boards with words inlaid in porcelain;, the left was push, the right pull. The doors could be independently locked or set so they would only swing in one direction or both, headmasters or caretakers choice. So sometimes the push pulled, and the pull pushed. To open a the push as a pull, you kicked it, which made the door bounce and if you were quick enough you could get your fingers round the edge of the heavy door. I believe the headmaster set them differently at a whim and to teach us not to trust or take anything for granted. It worked and I still have the lumps on my head to prove it. Usually Martin is right except when adults deal with children, to this day I always gently push a door to test it no matter what the doors says or looks like.

    If you know you British rock a levee is broken or if your an American singer/songwriter it’s dry.

    As for school, as Madness stated it taught us how to bend not break the rules.


  17. Helen Martin says:

    I had to do Latin by correspondence because my high school didn’t offer it (although the principal would have loved to have a class) and my determination only got me through a year and a half. I have a couple of texts sitting by my bed to enable going back and trying again. Latin bits turn up all the time as people have said above and it always helps in analyzing words and phrases. The question Chris gave seemed to me to be missing the length of the carriages but as I think it over maybe not. I was folding a single piece of paper in my mind while I read that sheet at the top and wondered what sort of paper lump you’d be handing in.

  18. Martin Tolley says:

    Cornelia – my pleasure. And if you are confronted with the horrid double door choice – go for the one with the keyhole.

  19. Jo W says:

    Push a door or pull? You have a fifty/fifty chance of getting it right, don’t you?

  20. Peter T says:

    Some doors can be difficult, the ones that need a battering ram, and the ones in Portugal that have a label ‘puxe’, pronounced push (sort of), that you have to pull. Martin’s advice is very helpful.

  21. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    That reminds me of Italian hot taps labelled ‘calda’.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    The stuff at the top of the page looks, to me, like the full instructions for Molesworth’s ‘Whizzo Spaceship’, though oddly, there seem to be no mentions of ‘Envelop’, ‘Crabbing Pins’, or, most importantly, ‘Cormthruster’.

  23. Liz Thompson says:

    This entire thread is a delight. And thanks for the advice Martin on pushing or pulling.

  24. Peter T says:

    Or they could be instructions for making a cheap copy of the incredibly ugly Nighthawk fighter plane.

  25. David Ronaldson says:

    Once, in a boat off Portland Bill, I thought, “If I had paid attention at school, I’d remember how to calculate the angle of elevation from the boat to the top of the lighthouse” but it wouldn’t have enhanced my enjoyment of the day…

  26. Jan says:

    Wot about Bimsley Senior?

    Did Colin join the job because of his dear old dad?

    In fact Bimsley senior was on the unit as a Pc wasn’t he?

  27. Lauren C says:

    Doors always swing toward their hinges. If you can see the hinges, pull.

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