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Listen to this piece read by the author

Sermon before the University, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 1 June.

Preaching​ is a hazard when writing plays. One isn’t supposed to preach and gets told off if one does. Poets are allowed to, but not playwrights, who if they have naked opinions, do better to clothe them in the decent ambiguities of their characters or conceal them in the sometimes all too thin thicket of the plot. Just don’t speak to the audience.

I have always found this prohibition difficult. John Gielgud, who was in my first play, thought talking to the audience was vulgar. Then he was prevailed upon to try it and thereafter would seldom talk to anybody else. I understand this and even in my most naturalistic plays have contrived and relished the moments when a character unexpectedly turns and addresses the house and, in a word, preaches.

This may be because as a boy and a regular worshipper at St Michael’s, Headingley I heard a lot of sermons. I also used to go to Saturday matinees at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, though on occasion the sermons were more dramatic than the plays. This was particularly so when they were preached, as they quite often were, by visiting fathers from the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield who were almost revivalist in their fervour and the spell they cast over the congregation.

So when as a young man I first had thoughts about what nowadays is called stand-up it’s not surprising it took the form of a sermon. Like all parodies it was born out of affection and familiarity and the Anglican services that were in my bones, and there is symmetry here as the first sermon I preached on a professional stage was in Cambridge fifty odd years ago across the road at the Arts Theatre in the revue Beyond the Fringe. It was on the text, ‘My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man.’ That sermon apart I have never formally preached since until this morning and here I am again in Cambridge.

This is where I came in.

I had first seen Cambridge ten years before when, as a boy of 17, I had come down from Leeds in December 1951 to sit the scholarship examination in history, staying the weekend, as one did in those days, in the college of my first choice, Sidney Sussex. The place and the university bowled me over. Leeds, where I had been born and brought up, was like the other great Northern cities still intact in 1951, but though I was not blind to its architectural splendours, unfashionable though at that time they were, it was a soot-blackened, wholly 19th-century city and as a boy, like Hector in The History Boys, I was famished for antiquity. I had never been in a place of such continuous and unfolding beauty as Cambridge and, December 1951 being exceptionally cold, the Cam was frozen over and a thick hoarfrost covered every court and quadrangle giving the whole city an unreal and celestial beauty. And it was empty, as provincial places in those days were.

I see my 17-year-old self roaming unrestricted through the colleges as one could in those unfranchised days, standing in Trinity Great Court in the moonlight thinking it inconceivable I could ever come to study in such blessed surroundings. And nor could I so far as Trinity was concerned. Sidney Sussex wasn’t quite my taste in buildings, but you had to be cleverer than I was or higher up the social scale to have the real pick of the architecture. Still, we were examined in the Senate House, the interior of which, had it been in Leeds would have been sequestered behind red ropes, and I went to evensong in King’s, astonished that one could just walk in and be seated in the choir stalls. It was Advent, or what nowadays is called the countdown to Christmas, and one of the hymns was ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, which is rather dirge-like but has stayed with me all my life since. Interviewed by the kindly dons at Sidney I was for the first time conscious of having a Northern accent.

If the dons were genial some of my fellow candidates were less so. That weekend was the first time I had 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. Public school they might be but they were louts. Seated at long refectory tables beneath 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.

But it was a party, seemingly, that I was going to be allowed to join as, though I was a long way from getting a scholarship, Sidney Sussex offered me a place to read history, to come up after my national service.

This, too, takes in Cambridge and if you’re beginning to wonder whether, far from being a sermon, this is just a stroll down memory lane, take heart, because here is where a tentative homily begins to shove its nose above the horizon.

Having done basic training in the infantry I was then sent on a course to learn Russian, a year of which was spent out of uniform and in very relaxed circumstances in Cambridge. It was a heady atmosphere, more so in some ways than university proper, where many of my colleagues were headed after national service. Some of them were disconcertingly clever, boys from public schools who, when they talked of their schooldays often had 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. For them the scholarship examination, from which I’d just managed to scrape a place, had almost been a formality. They had been schooled for it and groomed for the interviews that followed, with the scholarships and exhibitions that ensued almost to be taken for granted. This was Oxford and Cambridge after all; they were entitled.

If I felt this was wrong, which I did, it was not at that time an altruistic feeling. I was thinking of myself and how the odds were stacked against me and boys like me. And here I should apologise that this narrative is couched so continuously in single-sex terms, but then, so had my education been, my school, the army, my eventual college – all of them at that time male institutions.

As I say, I saw the odds as stacked against me but took some comfort, as I think educators did generally, in assuming that this situation must inevitably alter and that the proportion of undergraduates from state schools at Oxford and Cambridge would gradually overtake that from public schools until they were both properly and proportionately represented. It was only when as time passed this didn’t happen that what in my case had begun as a selfish and even plaintive grievance hardened to take in not just entrance to Oxford and Cambridge but access to higher education in general, with the scramble for university places more desperate year by year. And this is to say nothing of the cost.

Better minds than mine have tackled this problem and continue to do so and I would be foolish if I claimed to have a solution. But I know what is part of the problem and that is private education. My objection to private education is simply put. It is not fair. And to say that nothing is fair is not an answer. Governments, even this one, exist to make the nation’s circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education.

It might have been feasible at the time of the Butler reforms in 1944 but there were other things going on. The Labour government in 1945 could have tried but it had a great deal to do besides. There was not another chance until 1997 when Labour’s huge majority would have at least allowed a start, except that the prime minister had been a public schoolboy himself and seemingly a happy one so that opportunity too went begging.

I am not altogether sure why. When the question comes up there is always talk of the social disruption that would result, as it might be the Dissolution of the Monasteries all over again. But would it? I am not after all suggesting that public schools should be abolished but a gradual reform which began with the amalgamation of state and public schools at sixth form level, say, ought to be feasible and hardly revolutionary if the will is there. And that, of course, is the problem.

Some of this lack of will can be put down to the unfocused parental anxiety summed up, almost comically now, in Stephen Spender’s 1930s poem:

My parents kept me from children who were rough
And who threw words like stones and wore torn clothes.

Class, in a word, still. Less forgivably, there is a reluctance to share more widely (and thus to dilute) the undoubted advantages of a private education: smaller classes, better facilities and still, seemingly, a greater chance of getting to university. Beyond that, though, I’m less sure of the long-term social advantages which once would have included the accent, but hardly today. Still, and this is not to discount the many excellent schools in the state sector, a child of average ability is likely to do better at a good public school. Otherwise why would they be sent there? Were reforms to happen I suspect that the ones who would be the least worried by such an amalgamation would be the boys and girls themselves.

It would be unsurprising if you were to discount these forthright opinions as the rantings of an old man. I am now eighty, an age that entitles one to be listened to though not necessarily heeded. I had never been much concerned with politics until the 1980s when they became difficult to avoid. Without ever having been particularly left-wing I am happy never to have trod that dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age, a trip writers in particular seem drawn to, Amis, Osborne, Larkin, Iris Murdoch all ending up at the spectrum’s crusty and clichéd end.

If I haven’t, it’s partly due to circumstances: there has been so little that has happened to England since the 1980s that I have been happy about or felt able to endorse. One has only had to stand still to become a radical. Though that, too, sounds like an old man talking. Still, I don’t regret it and one thing it’s always a pleasure to see on television is the occasional programme about ancient and persistent activists, old ladies recounting their early struggles for women’s rights or battles for birth control, veteran campers from Greenham Common, cheerful, good-humoured and radical as they ever were, still – though it’s not a word I care for – feisty after all these years. That to me is wisdom as disillusion is not.

Another reason why there is a lack of will and a reluctance to meddle – a reluctance, one has to say, that does not protect the state sector where scarcely a week passes without some new initiative being announced – is that private education is seemingly not to be touched. This I think is because the division between state and private education is now taken for granted. Which doesn’t mean that it is thought to be fair, only that there is nothing that can or should be done about it.

But if, unlike the Daily Mail, one believes that the nation is still generous, magnanimous and above all fair it is hard not to think that we all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste. Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.

I would also suggest – hesitantly, as I am not adept enough to follow the ethical arguments involved – that if it is not fair then maybe it’s not Christian either.

How much our ideas of fairness owe to Christianity I am not sure. Souls after all are equal in the sight of God and thus deserving of what these days is called a level playing field. This is certainly not the case in education and never has been but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on trying. Isn’t it time we made a proper start?

Unlike today’s ideologues, whom I would call single-minded if mind came into it at all, I have no fear of the state. I was educated at the expense of the state both at school and university. My father’s life was saved by the state as on one occasion was my own. This would be the nanny state, a sneering appellation that gets short shrift with me. Without the state I would not be standing here today. I have no time for the ideology masquerading as pragmatism that would strip the state of its benevolent functions and make them occasions for profit. And why roll back the state only to be rolled over by the corporate entities that have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take its place? I am uneasy when prisons are run for profit or health services either. The rewards of probation and the alleviation of suffering are human profits and nothing to do with balance sheets. And these days no institution is immune. In my last play the Church of England is planning to sell off Winchester Cathedral. ‘Why not?’ says a character. ‘The school is private, why shouldn’t the cathedral be also?’ And it’s a joke but it’s no longer far-fetched.

With​ ideology masquerading as pragmatism, profit is now the sole yardstick against which all our institutions must be measured, a policy that comes not from experience but from assumptions – false assumptions – about human nature, with greed and self-interest taken to be its only reliable attributes. In pursuit of profit, the state and all that goes with it is sold from under us who are its rightful owners and with a frenzy and dedication that call up memories of an earlier iconoclasm.

Which brings me nearly to the end.

One pastime I had as a boy which, thanks to my partner, I resumed in middle age was looking at old churches, ‘ruin-bibbing’ Larkin dismissively called it though we perhaps have a little more expertise than Larkin disingenuously claimed he had. I do know what rood lofts were, for instance, though, like Larkin, I’m not always able to date a roof. The charm of most medieval churches consists in what history has left, and one learns to delight in little, the dregs of history: a few 15th-century bench ends, an alabaster tomb chest or, where glass is concerned, just the leavings of bigotry, with ideology weakening when it came to out-of-reach tracery – the hammer too heavy, the ladder too short – so that only fragments survive, a cluster of crockets and towers maybe, the glimpse of a golden city with a devil leering down.

In my bleaker moments these shards of history seem to me emblematic obviously of what has happened to England in the past but also a reminder and a warning of what in other respects is continuing to happen in the present, with the fabric of the state and the welfare state in particular stealthily dismantled as once the fabric of churches more rudely was, sold off, farmed out; another Dissolution, with profit taking precedence over any other consideration, and the perpetrators today as locked into their ideology and convinced of their own rightness as any of the devout louts who four and five hundred years ago stove in the windows and scratched out the faces of the saints as a passport to heaven.

I end with the last few lines of my first play, Forty Years On. It’s set in a school with the headmaster on the verge of retirement and is what nowadays is called a play for England. It ends with the boys and staff singing the doxology ‘All Creatures That on Earth Do Dwell’, with before it, this advertisement for England:

To let. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world.

At present on offer to corporate clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary.

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Letters

Vol. 36 No. 13 · 3 July 2014

Alan Bennett may not have been well enough bred for Trinity in the 1950s but his social origins would not have been a problem at King’s in recent times (LRB, 19 June). It has been among the most liberal Cambridge colleges in admitting state school pupils. Still, a child at private school is nine times more likely to go to Cambridge than a state school pupil. A day or two before Bennett addressed the dons, the head of ‘widening participation’ at the Cambridge Admissions Office was reported as saying that it was difficult to see how the university could increase the proportion of state school students unless their number of top grades went up. Yet in spite of all their disadvantages, there were enough state school pupils last year who got AAA or better in their A-levels to have filled up all the Cambridge colleges five times over; and, a few days after Bennett spoke, the IFS published research showing that state school pupils were 10 per cent more likely to get ‘good’ degrees than privately educated university entrants with the same A-level grades (and that comprehensive pupils were fractionally more likely than grammar school pupils to do so).

David Pole
Bridgend, Wales

Like Alan Bennett, I too sat the entrance exam at Cambridge, and looked around at this beautiful place finding it inconceivable that I would ever go there myself. I even memorised a turret on a building in Market Square and wondered if it would become a regular part of my visual landscape or never be seen again.

I was less aware than Bennett, however, of the whole public v. state school issue. A nice chap I sat next to at dinner in King’s asked me to his room for coffee, and when I said I was from a grammar school he said with some astonishment: ‘Really? I’ve never met anyone from a grammar school.’ It was a sign of my naivety that I thought he must therefore be from a secondary modern. He was actually from Westminster.

Karl Sabbagh
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire

Inevitably, the lessons in Alan Bennett’s splendid sermon will not be heeded by the louts currently in power. But a more pressing worry is the metaphorical threat of the two items of footwear on the cover. I hope he isn’t thinking of hanging them up.

Alan Gabbey
Barnard College, New York

Vol. 36 No. 14 · 17 July 2014

Alan Bennett’s sermon is a welcome comment on the ‘unfairness’ of England’s problematic private school system, but he doesn’t discuss the effect of this unfairness on our ‘democratic’ style of government (LRB, 19 June). For example, 32 per cent of our MPs have been drawn from the privately educated 7 per cent, and 64 per cent of senior posts in the civil service and government administration. Since these MPs – like Tony Blair or the present coalition leaders – can be found in all three major political parties, the public school agenda is always lurking. Hence Blair’s New Labour, with its antipathy to trades, skills and manufacturing, its supplanting of professional diplomas in favour of university degrees, and its doing away with apprenticeships and polytechnics in favour of trumped-up universities. All this in the cause of making money rather than things, which has resulted in one English firm after another being flogged off, or privatised, in a desperate attempt to prop up the UK’s languishing balance of payments. Meanwhile, state education is failing because those who are making the money haven’t the slightest incentive to improve it: the system is perfectly adequate for creating a pool of semi-skilled or unskilled workers for the zero-hour jobs on offer, or for furnishing the army with recruits for its failing projects abroad. Finland got rid of its private education system some years ago. Until England does the same, and makes a clean sweep of it, ours will remain both undemocratic and derelict.

John Dooley
Castelnau-Rivière-Basse, France

I was educated in the state system until the age of eight, when I won a scholarship to a decent private prep school. From there I won a full scholarship to a well-known public school, and then went to Oxford. My parents were both teachers at comprehensive schools and would never have been able to afford to educate me privately. I’m sure there are, as Bennett says, ‘many excellent schools in the state sector’, but there weren’t any where I grew up. The school I was at couldn’t handle me: I learned more quickly than anyone else in my class, grew frustrated with the slow pace of lessons and, as so many other children in that situation do, started making mischief. Had I not been lucky enough to win my first scholarship I would certainly have been expelled. Private school rescued me, as it rescues many like me. If it’s taken away, or amalgamated with the state sector, bright children who aren’t being catered for by the state system will miss their chance of a decent education. Is that any fairer?

Graham Perry
Southampton

Vol. 36 No. 15 · 31 July 2014

While there is much to agree with in John Dooley’s observations on our class-divided educational system, and loth as I am to leap to the defence of our lamentable and unlamented former prime minister, I must point out that Mr Dooley is incorrect when he writes of Tony Blair ‘doing away with apprenticeships and polytechnics in favour of trumped-up universities’ (Letters, 17 July). Blair was elected prime minister in 1997. The conversion of former polytechnics into universities was effected under the auspices of that former state-school pupil John Major, bringing to fruition the project of his notorious predecessor, that other product of state education, Margaret Thatcher. Credit where it’s due.

Stan Smith
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Bizarre that John Dooley’s letter blaming all England’s ills on private education should be written from France, whose political and economic elites are overwhelmingly state educated.

Robert Tombs
Cambridge

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