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 they were 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 1940s and early 1950s 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 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 17 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 undergraduates then (gleaned from movies like A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor) 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 thought 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. What surprised me, though, was the geniality of everyone and their kindness.

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, 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 to be, 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 mid-week too. Asked in the interview what I was intending to do with my life I probably said I planned to take holy orders. This was true, though I’m glad 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’s 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 Rowlandson print of Dr Syntax pursued by bees. It was 7/6 and is probably not worth much more now but it still hangs in the passage at home in Yorkshire, as a reminder of that 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.

National service was the first time 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 a spellbinding teacher like this and had had to make my own way, which may be one of the reasons 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 in the play. 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 a token 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 Horizon, 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 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’d spewed out it seemed increasingly unlikely.

When the letter came saying I’d won a scholarship I thought life was never going to be the same again, though it quite soon was, of course. The object of my affections was predictably unimpressed and after my initial joy and surprise I began to feel the whole exercise had been a con on my part. I was a promising something, maybe, but certainly it wasn’t a scholar.

Cut to three years later when I’m two terms away from my final examinations in history. I hadn’t had a notable university career either socially or academically and I’d never had the same sense of life opening out as I’d had in the army. Now it was nearly over. I’d no idea what I wanted to do. Just as once I’d thought to become a vicar for no better reason than that I looked like one, so now it occurred to me I might become a don on the same principle. But to do that I had to perform much better in Finals than I or my tutors expected me to do. Whatever had seemed unusual or promising about me when I’d been given a scholarship had long since worn off. I was a safe plodding second; I knew it and the college knew it too.

It was then that I remembered how I’d got the scholarship three years before and as I began to cram for Finals I adopted the same technique, reducing everything I knew to fit on cards which I carried everywhere, just as I’d done before. There were more cards this time but the contents were much the same: handy arguments, quotations, an examination kit in fact.

I also twigged what somebody ought to have taught me but never had, namely that there was a journalistic side to answering an examination question: that going for the wrong end of the stick was more attention-grabbing than a less unconventional approach, however balanced. But nobody had ever tutored me in examination techniques or conceded that such techniques existed, this omission I suspect to be put down to sheer snobbery or the notion (in the play ascribed to Hector) that any such considerations were practically indecent.

What we were supposed to be doing in the Final Schools was writing dry scholarly answers to academic questions. It’s Mrs Lintott’s method, with at Oxford a model answer often compared to a Times leader. In my case there wasn’t much hope of that, the alternative being journalism of a lowlier sort, the question argued in brisk generalities flavoured with sufficient facts and quotations to engage the examiner’s interest and disguise my basic ignorance. This is the Irwin method.

Once I’d got into the way of turning a question on its head in the way Irwin describes I began to get pleasure out of the technique itself much as Dakin does in the play, sketching out skeleton answers to all sorts of questions and using the same facts, for instance, to argue opposite points of view, all seasoned with a wide variety of references and quotations. I knew it wasn’t scholarship and in the Final Honours Schools it would only take me so far but it was my only hope.

I duly took the examination in scorching weather, two three-hour papers a day and the most gruelling five days of my life. At the finish I’d no idea how I had done and was so exhausted I didn’t care and went to the cinema every afternoon for a week.

The results came out about six weeks later after a viva voce examination. In those days everyone was viva’d, coming before the examining board even if it was only for half a minute with a longer viva meaning that you were on the edge of a class and so likely to go up or down. Mine lasted half an hour and went, I thought, badly. I could see a couple of examiners were on my side and endeavouring to be kind; the others weren’t interested. I went back home to Leeds in low spirits.

A friend who was in Oxford when the list went up sent me a postcard. It came on Monday morning when I was working at Tetley’s Brewery, rolling barrels. My father was ill and out of work and he and my mother brought this card to the lodge at the brewery gates, where I was sent for from the cellars. They weren’t sure what a first was.

‘Does it mean you’ve come top?’ asked my mother, not particularly surprised as from their point of view that’s what I’d always done ever since elementary school.

I went back to pushing the barrels around, hardly able to believe my luck. It was one of the great days of my life but it was luck: I was right; I hadn’t done well in the viva but another candidate had and with approximately the same results as mine had been put in the first class so I had to be included too. It was a narrow squeak.

So The History Boys is in some sense an outcome of those two crucial examinations and the play both a confession and an expiation. I have no nostalgia for my Oxford days at all and am happy never to have to sit an examination again. In playwriting there are no examinations unless, that is, you count the viva voce the audience puts the actors through every night.

What sort of school is it that can send eight boys to sit for history scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge? Not a state school, surely, even in the 1980s? I wanted it to be partly because that’s how I’d imagined it, setting the action in my mind’s eye as taking place in my own school, Leeds Modern School as was.

On the stage the school is vaguely taken to be in Sheffield and in my head I called it Cutlers, and though there isn’t a Cutlers Grammar School in Sheffield I feel there ought to have been. I made it a grammar school only because a comprehensive school would be unlikely to be fielding Oxbridge candidates in such large numbers. Unlikely, I subsequently found, to be fielding Oxbridge candidates at all, or at least not in the way I’d imagined.

When I was writing The History Boys I didn’t pay much heed to when it was supposed to be set. While not timeless (though one always hopes) its period didn’t seem important. It seemed to me to be about two sorts of teaching – or two teachers anyway (characters always more important than themes) who were teaching more or less in the present; I could decide when precisely after I’d finished the play.

My own memories of sitting the Cambridge scholarship examination were so vivid that they coloured the writing of the play with Oxford and Cambridge still held up to my sixth formers as citadels to be taken just as they were to me and my schoolfellows fifty years ago. I knew things had changed, of course, but I assumed that candidates for the scholarship examination spent two or three days at whichever university, staying in the college of their first choice, sitting examination papers and being interviewed, after which they would go back to Leeds or Blackburn or wherever to await the results ten days or so later. That was what had happened to me in December 1951 and it was a time I had never forgotten.

I was well on with the play when I mentioned it to a friend who had actually sat next to me in one of the scholarship examinations. He told me that I was hopelessly out of date and that scholarship examinations such as we’d both experienced were a thing of the past and even that scholarships themselves were not what they were. What had replaced the system he wasn’t sure but he thought that candidates no longer took scholarship examinations while they were at school but at the end of their first year in college when awards were made on course work.

I was shocked and didn’t want to know, not because this invalidated the play (it is a play, after all, and not a white paper) but because what had been such a memorable episode in my life was now wholly confined to history. What had happened so unforgettably to me couldn’t happen any more; it was as outmoded as maypole dancing. And as for the now stay-at-home examinees I just felt sorry for them. No romantic weekend for them, threading the frosted Backs or sliding over the cobbles of Trinity; no Evensong in King’s, life, as in so many other respects, duller than once it was. Still, I don’t imagine the candidates themselves felt much deprived and from the colleges’ point of view it simply meant that they had another weekend available for conferences.

However I now had to decide if I could adapt the play to present day circumstances, but decided I shouldn’t, as much for practical reasons as any concern for the facts. The current system of assessment, whatever its merits, is no help to the playwright. Graduated assessment is no use at all. The test, the examination, the ordeal, unfair though they may be, are at least dramatic.

Accordingly I set the play in the 1980s when people seemed to think the system had changed. It’s significant that without looking it up nobody I spoke to could quite remember the sequence, which testifies to the truth of Irwin’s remark about the remoteness of the recent past but is also an instance of how formless the history of an institution becomes once its public procedures are meddled with. Fairer, more decent and catering to the individual the new system may be but as memorable and even ceremonial, no and that is a loss, though these days not an uncommon one.

The school is not fee-paying, a grammar school such as Leeds Grammar School or Manchester with a place at the Headmasters’ Conference, though that’s what Mr Armstrong, the headmaster, would like it to have. I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that private education should long since have been abolished and that Britain has paid too high a price for its public schools in social inequality. At the same time I can’t see that public schools could be abolished (even if there was the will) without an enormous amount of social disruption. The proper way forward would be for state education to reach such a standard that private schools would be undersubscribed but there’s fat chance of that, particularly under the present administration. The same hope, of course, ought to animate the National Health Service but the future for that seems equally bleak.

These days getting into Oxford or Cambridge or indeed any university is only the beginning of the story. Money has to be found, earned, donated by parents, borrowed from the bank or wherever student loans currently come from. It’s a sizeable hurdle and one my generation were happy to be without, if we ever gave it a thought. At that time acceptance by a university or any institution of higher learning automatically brought with it a grant from the state or the local authority. The names of the recipients of such grants would be printed in the local paper, occasionally with their photographs, the underlying assumption being that the names of these students should be known because they had done the city or the county some service and would now go on to do more. There was genuine pride in such achievements and in the free education that had made them possible – particularly perhaps in Leeds which had an outstanding education department.

I am told that I am naive or unrealistic but I do not understand why we cannot afford such a system today. As a nation we are poorer for the lack of it, the latest round in that lost fight the bullying through of the bill on top-up fees, with this so-called Labour government stamping on the grave of what it was once thought to stand for. Though there is much that is called education nowadays that is nothing of the sort, and doesn’t deserve subsidy, I still hold to the belief that a proper education should be free at the point of entry and the point of exit.

At Oxford in the late 1950s some of the teaching I did was for Magdalen (which explains why it’s occasionally mentioned in the play). One year I was also drafted in to help mark and interview candidates for the history scholarships. It didn’t seem all that long since I had been interviewed myself and I was nervous lest my marks would differ from those of my more experienced colleagues by whom I was every bit as intimidated as the candidates were.

I needn’t have worried, though, as apart from some papers of authentic Wykehamist brilliance the other promising candidates were virtually self-selecting, one’s attention always caught by oddity, extremity and flair just as Irwin foresees. Whether these candidates were genuine originals or (like the boys in the play) coached into seeming so, the interview was meant to show up but I’m not sure it always did. It was the triumph of Irwin.

Candidates do well in examinations for various reasons, some from genuine ability, obviously, but others because doing well in examinations is what they do well; they can put on a show. Maybe it doesn’t work like that now that course work is taken into consideration and more weight is given to solider virtues. But it has always struck me that some of the flashier historians, particularly on television, are just grown-up versions of the wised-up schoolboys who generally got the scholarships (myself included).

These considerations have acquired a more general interest as history has become more popular both on the page and on the screen. The doyen of TV historians, Simon Schama, is in a league of his own and his political viewpoint not in the forefront, but the new breed of historian – Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Norman Stone – all came to prominence under Mrs Thatcher and share some of her characteristics. Having found that taking the contrary view pays dividends they seem to make this the tone of their customary discourse. A sneer is never far away and there’s a persistently jeering note perhaps bred by the habit of contention. David Starkey sneers, too, but I feel this is more cosmetic.

None of this posing, though, is altogether new. A.J.P. Taylor was its original exponent, certainly on television, and was every bit as pleased with himself as the new breed of history boys. Still with nothing else to put in the frame but his own personality and with no graphics and no film he had perhaps more excuse for hamming it up a bit. His pleasure at his own technique, the flawless delivery (no autocue) and the winding-up of the lecture to the very second allotted were reasons enough for watching him regardless of whatever history it was he was purveying. Even with him, though, the paradoxes and the contrariousness could get wearisome, certainly in the lecture hall where I remember nodding off during one of his Ford Lectures.

Irwin’s career path might seem odd. Schoolmaster to TV don is plausible enough but from lecturing about the dissolution of the monasteries to government spokesperson is a bit of a leap, though there are odder episodes in the early career of Alastair Campbell. No subject was further from my mind when I began to write the play and it was only as I sat in on Irwin’s classes, as it were, that I saw that teaching history or teaching the self-presentation involved with the examination of history was not unrelated to presentation in general.

The actors playing the sixth formers had to learn not only the parts they had to act but also what they meant. The play is stiff with literary and historical references many of which, at first reading anyway, meant little to the actors. The early stages of rehearsal were therefore more like proper school than a stage version of it.

They read and talked about Auden, a favourite of Hector’s in the play (though not of Mrs Lintott). Auden keeps being quoted so we read and discussed some of his poems and the circumstances of his life. Hardy was another subject for tutorials, leading on to Larkin much as happens in the last scene of Act I. The First and Second Wars figure largely in the play, as they seemed to do on the classroom walls of the schools we visited to get some local colour before rehearsals started: so the period 1914-45 was also much talked about. I normally get impatient when there’s a lot of discussion before rehearsal proper starts but with this play it was essential.

Maybe, too, it says something about the status of the actor. Half a lifetime ago my first play, Forty Years On, was about a very different sort of school and as full of buried quotations and historical allusion as The History Boys. Back in 1968, though, there was never any question of educating the score or so boys that made up Albion House school. We never, that I recall, filled them in on who Virginia Woolf was or put them in the picture about Lady Ottoline Morrell; Sapper, Buchan, Osbert Sitwell – to the boys these must have been names only, familiar to the principal players, John Gielgud and Paul Eddington, but as remote to the rest of the cast as historical figures in Shakespeare. This omission was partly because with only four weeks to rehearse there wasn’t time to tell them more but also because in those days actors were treated with less consideration than they are now, at any rate at the National Theatre.

But these early rehearsals with Nicholas Hytner taking the class were a reminder that good directors are often good teachers (Ronald Eyre another example) and that theatre is often at its most absorbing when it’s school.

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Vol. 26 No. 12 · 24 June 2004

Alan Bennett wonders what became of the scholarship examinations for Oxford and Cambridge (LRB, 3 June). I sat the Cambridge examination from a state school in 1982. But the examination whose passing I most regret was at Cambridge itself: General Historical Problems, three hours, answer one question out of 32. Question 32 was the gem: ‘Why, in general, have the English not eaten their horses?’

Martin Pierce
London SW14

On arriving at Leeds Modern School in 1966 I was given two pieces of information which impressed me. The first was that the headmaster, ‘Cheesy’ Holland, had been the first grammar school head to be appointed to the Headmasters’ Conference. I was told the second rather grudgingly by the history master: Alan Bennett, recently seen on television, was an old boy. This was meant as an admonishment, and an indication of some drift in or threat to the school’s standing.

Geoffrey Thompson
Itteringham, Norfolk

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