The History Boy

Alan Bennett

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.

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