Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Opinion: Thoughts of a Real History Boy

The most memorable line in Alan Bennett’s History Boys is spoken by Posner, one of the pupils aiming to achieve an Oxbridge scholarship from a northern grammar school:

I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f**ked.

As someone who trod the same path from the sticks to Oxford, I related to Posner and at the same age could equally have thought:

I’m working class with a Jewish name. I’m fat. I’m homosexual. I go to school in Redditch. I’m f**ked too.

Like audiences all over the world, I enjoyed the original production of History Boys: it was insightful, witty and humane. It cast light on ambition, relationships, education and the unique perspective of particular ages.

Recently, I revisited the History Boys by way of the DVD of the excellent film version. I appreciated the play even more, but found that the gulf between what it presented and my own experience seemed wider.

Some elements of the play mirrored my experience precisely. As a precocious sixth former I displayed the same single-minded ambition, intellectual arrogance and competitiveness. Each day was marked by an internal excitement about the limitless opportunities ahead. Suddenly after the conformity of academic life up to and beyond O levels, the wide reading and scope for self-expression given by the scholarship exam papers was liberating. One felt like an undefeated boxer preparing for the big fight. Until failure one was respected. It boosted the ego of a shy adolescent.

The play also accurately picked up on the kudos for the school in sending pupils to Oxbridge and the jaw-dropping impact of the colleges on the boy going-up for interview.

My reality had some practical differences. My school was co-educational. In 1971 I took the scholarship exams in the first term of the upper sixth - before A levels. In the early 1980s I gather the system changed altogether which is why the play was set just before the alteration.

In other ways my experience was radically different. Although more than three quarters of a very talented class went on to university, only a handful tried for Oxbridge. There was no scholarship class of history boys – just me. I did not experience the camaraderie of a scholarship group and studied in isolation.

My preparation did not include any training in general studies or advice on quotable gobbits to memorise. I just read voraciously.

My teacher was helpful and encouraging. He prompted wide reading and a scholarly approach but never groomed in flashy exam technique. I had no tuition in journalistic fakery and forced individualism. It was self-apparent that it would be necessary to think for oneself and argue confidently. It was simply understood that to stand any chance of getting in one had to display powerful reasoning and an original line of thought.

I’m still not clear whether any of the history boys actually loved their subject. Although Posner seemed to love music and literature, the general approach to history appeared mainly pragmatic: a means to an end and not an end in itself. They were admirably clever, articulate and ambitious. I wasn’t that sharp or canny but, at the risk of sounding to good to be true, had truly loved my subject from the age of ten. I wanted to read history at Oxford because it would give me huge pleasure, not just to beat everyone else or use it a stepping stone to be a wealthy tax lawyer or TV presenter.

I envied the sheer tolerance of the history boys and the way they accepted Posner’s love of Dakin, albeit with wry amusement. It was so cheerful and good-natured. In 1971, whilst I worked on in my bedroom, some of my classmates spent evenings together at Astwood Bank discos or afternoons down the Villa. I did not find the lads accepting or inclusive. In my isolated experience, life did not anticipate or imitate art.

The role of the parents of the history boys was presented with a light touch. Akthar’s family seemed most hands-on. We are left to assume that they were all involved to varying degrees, perhaps pushing but probably supporting and understanding the process.

In my world the desire and ambition was mine. The real prize and its implications was only clear to me. I was given a quiet and comfortable place in which to work, but never driven. I was the first in my family to try for university, let alone Oxford. My parents were happy I was having a go but were not really concerned as to whether or not I got in. They worried more about their studious son working too hard and not having friends, rather than failing an entrance exam. They sensibly persuaded me as a teenager to take a Saturday job and go to watch football to stop me studying 24/7.

Twenty or so years later, I was alone with my father after he had sunk too much scotch on a Christmas Day evening. He confided that at a parent’s evening when I was twelve, my history teacher said that I had a real talent in the subject and if your son applies himself, he could well read history at Oxford. Dad casually admitted that he had laughed out loud at the suggestion and thought no more of it.

Warming to the topic, my father then described one Saturday morning after my scholarship examination and interview. He had been repairing something in his shed and I walked in to show him the letter from Oxford containing an unconditional offer of a place. Somewhere between bitterness and regret, he said: It was the only time in your life I ever saw you truly happy.

For me, those remarks illustrate two of the greatest happinesses and sadnesses of my life.

So, in his clever way, Mr Bennett told the story of those history boys brilliantly, but it wasn’t the whole story and it certainly wasn’t my story.

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