Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Read it now, learn it now and you'll know it whenever"

"Read it now, learn it now and you'll know it whenever"

Not so long ago I was told to go and see The History Boys because i)there were cute boys in it and ii)I would find it "beautiful". Given that I also had a discount voucher to use at the Vue cinema of my choice (a result of D and I going to see Marie Antoinette a couple of weeks ago) I really had no excuse for not going. Let's just pause and do the maths:

Discount x (cute boys + something beautiful) = a good night out.

Or not so much night as late afternoon/early evening because - and I hang my head in mock shame - I'm craving early nights at the moment, undoubtedly a reaction to rarely being home before 11:15pm what with The Duchess of Malfi in the Quarry. But either way, the maths shows you that it would have been rude of me not to have gone to see The History Boys.

Within about five minutes of the film starting - or at least enough time for me to eat the free chocolate bar I'd been given in Borders, no doubt as a thank you for single handedly keeping them in business - it struck me that I didn't understand why I've never seen The History Boys on stage. Because this film, this play, it screams out just how much I would love it*. And not just because it is incredibly well written and acted and, the film at least, made me squeak a little when it showed both Fountains Abbey and the Rad Cam in Oxford. But because it spoke to me. It spoke to me about my own experiences and my own beliefs.

"There are two types of teachers - those who teach you to pass exams and those who teach you to enrich you as a person"

I was sixteen when I heard this, sat in an empty maths classrooms having my first British History lesson with a teacher I'd come into contact with only via those never ending end of term assemblies. I knew nothing more than that he had a long term reputation for smoking biros. I think the word is quirky. Certainly there was a lack of official looking worksheets of the type that we'd been given in European History. Heck, we'd been given binders and plastic wallets and everything there. I felt it safe to assume that Mr C probably didn't know where the plastic wallets were kept. Indeed over the course of two years it was deemed a very good haul if we got so much as a sheet of lined paper. But there were other things. Copies of Private Eye that would appear, large stretches of lessons that would be given over to some random topic that had some outside link to whatever it was that William Pitt the younger was supposed to be doing, debates on voting age and proportional representation. I was sent home with orders to watch The Madness of King George when studying the regency crisis, the first and only time that I can say that watching Rupert Everett has been an educational necessity. I gained not only large chunks of my political outlook in those lessons but an indelible feeling that those far away people with their reasons for going to war, their desires for better working conditions and their fears weren't that different to us. Even more importantly, I was taught how to use an apostrophe. I believe I was taught about splitting infinitives too, but that one didn't stick.

It was Mr C who suggested to me - one morning in the ramshackle office with its deputy head sign on the door - that I consider applying to Oxbridge. And whilst those months that followed weren't quite as intense as the system shown in The History Boys the fact that many sixth forms have 'Oxbridge Lessons' points to the fact that getting into Oxford or Cambridge is still considered a subject in its own right. I can remember the lists, the hours in the library reading novels I didn't quite love (Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Anita Brookner's Hotel Du Lac), isms I didn't quite understand (Marx , Freud) and rhyme schemes I couldn't quite pin down (yes, you, Mr T S Eliot). And if Mr C's Hector was the background for this, then it didn't mean I was exempt from having an Irwin brought in to test me.

"If you can't talk about Dickens then you must be able to talk about George Eliot"

It seemed churlish of me to point out that I didn't really like Dickens and I hadn't read any George Eliot. I went home read Silas Marner and started The Mill on the Floss. I was still reading The Mill on The Floss as I sat in a service station on my way to Oxford for my interview. And, yes, I did talk about it just as I talked about body parts in Jacobean drama, the notions of time presented in The Four Quartets, Larkin's cosmos and whether I thought that ET was an analogy for the story of Christ. Because you can't deny the pragmatic Irwin entirely. Be it examinations or Oxbridge interviews there's a lot to be said for being able to jump through the hoops you're set. And that piece of advice that I was given pre-finals, it could have come straight out of Irwin's mouth in the wonderful scene where the boys debate writing about the Holocaust: "It's better to be interesting than to be right".

If that was where The History Boys had finished I would have been happy enough, feeling as I did that it touched a part of my life. But what about the part that I found utterly, heart wrenchingly beautiful? If you've seen either play or film you can probably guess.

Posner and Hector discussing Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge'.

As the two characters read the poem they both became reflected in its words, their feelings spread out before them by the writing of a long dead man. And my heart soared and I felt tears running down my face because this - this - is what reading is all about. Not about Irwin's "gobbits", but the feeling that you are not alone, others have trod this path, as Hector so brilliantly puts it, that a hand reaches out to hold yours. And if I firmly believe that there is not much in life that a bar of galaxy chocolate and a Richard Curtis film and/or an episode of Friends cannot soothe I believe even more firmly about literature's restorative powers. Because it doesn't just numb you, it makes you understand. Need an answer? Look in the pages of Will Shakespeare, or Ted Hughes or Ginny Woolf or, if you're feeling particularly brave, Byron. Nothing there? Try Marlowe, Wordsworth, Behn, Stoppard, Browning, Webster, Shelley (either of them), Fitzgerald or Plath. Give Tennyson, Sidney, Bronte (all of them), Hare, Atwood, Middleton, Ishiguro, Austen, heck even Chaucer a go. Hector loves Auden and Housman because they speak to him - they speak of loss, of homosexuality, of youth, of love. They speak to him of himself. And in 'Drummer Hodge' both Posner and Hector reach in and see the lonliness at the heart of the poem; it joins them, binds them with Hardy and momentarily they're no longer alone.

Having shuddered with the boys through their interviews and felt that great flash of satisfaction as they gained their places, by the final moments of the film I was crying again. Crying for everything contained in the final words of the film which, rightly, belong to Hector:

"Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you but for someone somewhere one day"

In my world at least there is no greater call to arms.

*Basic plot outline: a group of A grade grammar school boys in Yorkshire in the early eighties prepare for the Oxbridge entrance exams under the competing influence of an eccentric general studies teacher [Hector] and a progressive History teacher [Irwin].


billygean.co.uk said...


I want to see it now


Val said...

Knew you'd love it! I still can't work out why I've not seen it on stage either.