Read The History Boys Online

Authors: Alan Bennett

The History Boys


The History Boys

I have generally done well in examinations and not been intimidated by them. Back in 1948, when I took my O Levels – or School Certificate, as it was then called – I was made fun of by the other boys in my class because on the morning of the first paper I turned up in a suit. It was my only suit and already too small, but to wear it didn't seem silly to me then as I thought the examination was an occasion and that I must rise to it accordingly.

Ten years or so later I took my Finals at Oxford and dressed up again. This time, though, nobody laughed as we were all dressed up in the suit, white tie, mortar board and gown that were obligatory for the occasion. This was, I suppose, the last and most significant examination in my life, and it was in this examination that I cheated, just as I had cheated a few years before to get the scholarship that took me to Oxford in the first place.

I was not dishonest; I kept to the rules and didn't crib, and nobody else would have called it cheating, then or now, but it has always seemed so to me. False pretences, anyway.

I was educated at Leeds Modern School, a state school which in the forties and early fifties regularly sent boys on to Leeds University but seldom to Oxford or Cambridge. I don't recall the sixth form in my year being considered outstandingly clever but in 1951, for the first time, the headmaster, who had been at Cambridge himself made an effort to push some of his university entrants towards the older universities. Snobbery was part of it, I imagine, and by the same token he switched the school from playing soccer to rugger, though since I avoided both this had little impact on me. However, there were about eight of us sixth
formers who went up for the examinations and we all managed to get in, and some even to be awarded scholarships.

Though that's a situation which seems to mirror that of
The History Boys
, the play has nothing to do with my contemporaries, only a couple of whom were historians anyway, but it does draw on some of the pains and the excitement of working for a scholarship at a time when Oxford and Cambridge were as daunting and mysterious to me as to any of the boys in the play.

The first hurdle, more intimidating to me than any examination, was having to go up to Cambridge and stay in the college for the weekend. I had seldom been away from home and was not equipped for travel. I fancy a sponge bag had to be bought, but since at seventeen I still didn't shave, there wasn't much to go in it; my mother probably invested in some better pyjamas for me, but that was it. A stock vision of an undergraduate then (gleaned from movies like Robert Taylor in
A Yank at Oxford
) was of a young man in dressing gown and slippers, a towel round his neck, en route for the distant baths. I didn't run to a dressing gown and slippers either: ‘Nobody'll mind if you just wear your raincoat,' my mother reassuringly said. I wasn't reassured but there was a limit to what my parents could afford.

It all seems absurd now, but not then. For all I knew someone who went to the baths in a raincoat and his ordinary shoes might not be the sort of undergraduate the college was looking for. And droll though these misgivings seem, then they were more real than any worries about the examination itself, and they persisted long after examinations were over, my social and class self-consciousness not entirely shed until long after my education proper was finished.

December 1951 was sunny but bitterly cold, and though there was no snow the Cam was frozen and the lawns and quadrangles white with frost; coming to it from the soot
and grime of the West Riding, I had never seen or imagined a place of such beauty. And even today the only place that has enchanted me as much as Cambridge did then is Venice.

It was out of term, the university had gone down and apart from candidates like myself who had come up for the examination there was nobody about. But then that was true of most English country towns in the early 1950s, when tourism was not yet an option. I walked through King's, past Clare, Trinity Hall and Caius, and then through the back gate of Trinity and out into Trinity Great Court, and thought that this was how all cities should be. Nothing disconcerted this wondering boy, and I even managed to find the smell of old dinner that clung to the screens passage in the college halls somehow romantic and redolent of the past. And in those days one could just wander at will, go into any chapel or library, so that long after dusk I was still patrolling this enchanted place. Starved for antiquity, Hector says of himself in the play, and that was certainly true of me.

Gothick rather than Gothic Sidney Sussex, the college of my choice, wasn't quite my taste in buildings, but I was realistic about what I was entitled to expect both architecturally and academically, and (with Balliol the exception) the nastier a college looked the lower seemed to be its social and academic status. You had to be cleverer than I was or from higher up the social scale to have the real pick of the architecture.

It was unnerving to be interviewed by dons who had actually written books one had read. At Sidney it was the historian David Thomson with whose face I was familiar from the back of his Penguin. What surprised me, though, was the geniality of everyone and their kindness, though I'm familiar with it now, even as recently as this play. Being interviewed for Cambridge is not unlike being auditioned, only now my role is reversed. I hope I am just as
genial and twinkling with our would-be performers as David Thomson and R. C. Smail were with me.

If the dons were genial, some of my fellow candidates were less so. That weekend was the first time I had ever come across public schoolboys in the mass, and I was appalled. They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy.

I had always found eating in public a nervous business, the way one was supposed to eat, like the way one was supposed to speak, a delicate area. I had only just learned, for instance, that the polite way when finishing your soup was to tip the plate away from you. I soon realised that this careful manoeuvre was not a refinement that was going to take me very far, not in this company anyway. Unabashed by the imposing surroundings in which they found themselves or (another first for me) being waited on by men, these boys hogged the bread, they slurped the soup and bolted whatever was put on their plates with medieval abandon. Public school they might be, but they were louts. Seated at long refectory tables, the walls hung with armorial escutcheons and the mellow portraits of Tudor and Stuart grandees, neat, timorous and genteel, we grammar school boys were the interlopers; these slobs, as they seemed to me, the party in possession.

Like Scripps in the play, on Sunday morning I went to communion in the college chapel, and in the same self-serving frame of mind, though in those days I would go to communion every Sunday anyway and sometimes midweek too. Asked in the interview what I was intending to do with my life, I think I probably said I planned to take Holy Orders. This was true, though I'm glad to say none of the dons thought to probe the nature of my faith, or they would have found it pretty shallow. And clichéd too, which Scripps' faith is not, besides being far more detached and sceptical than mine ever managed to be.

On the foggy way home I changed trains at Doncaster, where in a junk shop I bought my mother a little Row-landson print of Dr Syntax pursued by bees. It was
and is probably not worth much more now, but it still hangs in the passage at home in Yorkshire, a reminder of that memorable weekend. A few days later I got a letter offering me a place at Sidney Sussex after I'd done my two years' National Service. It didn't work out like that, but at the time it all seemed very satisfactory. I was going to Cambridge.

At school I never had a teacher like Hector or like Irwin. My own history master was solid and dependable, his approach factual and down to earth, much as Mrs Lintott's. What drew me to him, though, was a hint of some secret sorrow. Mr Hill – H. H. Hill, the alliteration also a plus – was rumoured to have had some Housman-like breakdown at university when, having been expected to get a First, he had scarcely passed at all. That was as far as the Housman comparison would stretch, though, as he was happily married and fond of golf. An ironic and undemonstrative man, he was not temperamentally suited to the role of mentor or sage; still, he never made me feel a fool, which is high praise.

With other masters the secret sorrow was probably just that of middle-aged teachers in a not particularly good school with nothing to look forward to but retirement. Huddled at the bus stop waiting for the 4.15 to Horsforth, they looked a sad and shabby lot.

Once in a slack period of the afternoon when we were being particularly un-bright, the French master put his head down on the desk and wailed, ‘Why am I wasting my life in this god-forsaken school?' It was not a question to which he expected an answer, and there was an embarrassed silence and a snigger from one of the less sensitive boys, much as there is in the play when Hector does the same. The incident stuck in my mind, I suppose, because it was a revelation to me at the time – I was fourteen or so –
that masters had inner lives (or lives at all). Teaching French, he looked French in a rather M. Hulot-like way, but was far from being an apostle of continental abandon. Not long before he had shepherded the class to a school showing of Marcel Carné's
Les Enfants du Paradis
, one of the earliest French films to be shown in Leeds after the war. Mystifying to me, it had deeply shocked him, and he had warned the class that those who led lives like the circus people in the film (fat chance) were likely to end up blind or riddled with disease. This just made me want to go back and see the film again, as I felt there must have been something that I'd missed.

That there were schoolmasters who were larger than life, whose pupils considered themselves set apart, only came home to me after I'd left school and was doing National Service. It was then, too, that I began to mix with boys who were much cleverer than I was and who had been better taught, all of us having ended up learning Russian at the Joint Services School. This, delightfully, was based at Cambridge, and while we officer cadets didn't quite lead the lives of undergraduates, service discipline was kept to a minimum in order to facilitate our Slavonic studies; we did not have to wear uniform or take part in parades, and in lots of ways it was a more easeful and idyllic existence than I was eventually to find university proper.

It was a heady atmosphere. Many of the others on the course were disconcertingly clever, particularly, I remember, a group of boys from Christ's Hospital – boys whose schools had been a world as mine never was; and when they talked of their schooldays there was often in the background a master whose teaching had been memorable and about whom they told anecdotes, and whose sayings they remembered: teachers, I remember thinking bitterly, who had presumably played a part in getting them the scholarships most of them had at Oxford and Cambridge. To me this just seemed unfair. I had never had such a teacher
and had had to make my own way, which may be one of the reasons why I've been prompted to write such a teacher now.

As the months passed I began to feel that since I could hold my own with these boys in Russian maybe I ought to have another shot at getting a scholarship myself. Besides, I was at Cambridge already; perhaps, rather than come back there after National Service, I would be better (more rounded I fear I thought of it) going to Oxford. This first occurred to me in October 1953, and having written off for the prospectuses I found that I could take the scholarship examination at Exeter College, Oxford, in the following January.

There was no practical advantage to getting a scholarship. It carried more prestige, certainly, but no more money; at Oxford scholars wore a longer gown than commoners and had an extra year in college rather than in digs, but that apart I wanted a scholarship out of sheer vanity.

Or not quite. I had fallen for one of my colleagues with a passion as hopeless and unrequited as Posner's is for Dakin. This boy was going to Oxford on a scholarship, so naturally (or unnaturally as it was then) I wanted to do the same, and with some silly notion, again like Posner, that if I did manage to get a scholarship he would think more of me in consequence. Such illusions and the disillusions that inevitably came with them were, I see now, as significant as any examinations I did or did not take, and that underneath my formal education a more useful course of instruction was meanwhile in process.

If I was to take the examination at Exeter I didn't have much time. My history was rusty, and studying Russian during the day meant that the only time I had to myself was in the evenings, which I generally spent in the Cambridge Public Library. In the meantime I reduced everything I knew to a set of notes with answers to possible questions and odd, eye-catching quotations all written out
on a series of forty or fifty correspondence cards, a handful of which I carried in my pocket wherever I went. I learned them in class while ostensibly doing Russian, on the bus coming into Cambridge in the mornings, and in any odd moment that presented itself.

When I went on Christmas leave just before the examination, I happened to find in Leeds Reference Library a complete set of
, Cyril Connolly's wartime magazine which had ceased publication only a year or two before, but of which I had never heard. It opened my eyes to all sorts of cultural developments like existentialism which were then current and fashionable. I didn't understand them altogether, but these, too, got reduced to minced morsels on my cards in order to serve as fodder for the General Paper.

Come the examination, everything tumbled out: facts, quotations, all the stuff I'd laboriously committed to memory over the previous three months, my only problem being lack of time. At the interview I still said, as I had at Cambridge, that I would probably end up taking Holy Orders, though in view of the existentialism I spewed out it seemed increasingly unlikely.

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