Tuesday 24 October 2006

The Real History Boys

At the start of this month I went to a London preview of the film of The History Boys. The author himself was there, doing his celebrated impersonation of Alan Bennett. And it was a good night out – if not quite as gripping as the original play. It was also a strangely eerie experience for someone who actually spent an extra term in the sixth form of a northern grammar school preparing for the Oxbridge scholarship examinations in history, albeit a decade before the film is set.

They don’t have entrance scholarships at Oxbridge any more, of course. Far too elitist in an age that prefers to focus on dumbing down, increasing diversity and improving access. Though, funnily enough, more northern working class children got into Oxford and Cambridge in my day than now, thanks to those dreadfully divisive grammar schools. A system that was enthusiastically smashed up by politicians of both major parties on the grounds that, if an opportunity can’t be made available to absolutely everyone, it must be denied to all.

Here I’d like to state a few controversial facts. First, academic education is inevitably elitist. Second, some children are too thick to benefit from it. Third, sending the thickoes to fringe institutions re-branded as ‘universities’ and handing them BSc degrees in lawn maintenance or macramĂ© is achieving absolutely nothing for this country either socially or economically, and risks making us an international laughing stock.

Having got that off my chest, how accurate is The History Boys? Well, it’s not much like the Royal Grammar School in 1971. We didn’t work like navvies all term. Sauntering in for one lesson per day was more like it. Nor did we receive the attentions of any serial gropers. (Yes, I know I could have been the exception, as no-one wants to grope the fat one, but I’ve checked with a number of my contemporaries and they all say the same.)

But the real difference is this. The most daring thing anyone does in the film (apart from the groping and ‘coming out’) is to light a cigarette. Not a drop of alcohol crosses anyone’s lips. There could hardly be a greater contrast with my own days in the sixth form, which were positively awash with beer.

At the RGS in the early 1970s, we had a civilised understanding: the boys went to the Collingwood about 400 yards from the school, and the masters went to the Brandling next door. Every lunchtime, every evening. We must have spent the afternoons reeking of beer, though I don’t recall anyone being obviously the worse for wear.

The proudest moment of my school career – far better than being handed the lower sixth history prize by Lord Robens – was the day that some act of petty vandalism led to the Collingwood temporarily barring schoolboys. As we walked disconsolately towards the door, Betty the landlady called me back. ‘Not you, Keith. You’re a regular.’ I was 16 at the time, and I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling of social acceptance ever since.

It must have been so for generations. At a school reunion dinner many years later, I ran into a man who had gone up to Cambridge, in the early 1950s. On his first day, a friendly don told him to come to his house if he found himself out of college after hours, rather than risk impaling himself drunkenly on the railings. He asked whether the don made this offer to everyone. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘Just the boys from your school.’

The RGS is all changed now: co-educational, forward-looking, brimming with high-tech facilities. The desks on which we were taught are literally in Beamish museum, and there is a powerful rumour that they have even painted the lavatories. There are no Oxbridge scholarships for the boys and girls to win. So what I’d like to know is: does this allow them to spend even more time in the pub?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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