The Long View: Alan Bennett, Oxford, and Spin

In 2008, Alan Bennett donated his papers – including an early draft of his play The History Boys, first performed in 2004 – to the Bodleian Library as a gesture of thanks for the state-sponsored education he had received at the University of Oxford in the 1950s. This unpublished material reveals Bennett’s pleasingly lukewarm attitude towards his time at Oxford. In addition, it shows his scepticism towards the relationship between academic history and political spin which has, in the six decades since his graduation, blossomed from a furtive flirtation to a committed partnership. The archives are both a gift and an admonishment to the academy, urging us to reconsider a perceived preference for rhetoric over truth-seeking in academic and public discourse. They do so by shining a light on Bennett’s life, his plays, and his reflections on post-truth history.

Alan Bennett photographed by Allan Warner in London, 1973.

Not unlike many present-day undergraduates, Bennett’s attitude towards his experience of Oxford could be characterised as a case of ‘impostor syndrome’. He has, however, made a career of what many Oxbridge students find to be a hindrance: the sense of being an outsider, watching from life’s fringes, is a running theme in his writing for stage and screen. His first encounter with Oxbridge was in 1953, when he applied for a scholarship to Cambridge. In drafts of the script for a 2002 BBC documentary, he recollects that he was not entirely sure what university was at the time, as nobody at school had thought to explain. The prospect of studying against a period backdrop, though, was enough to convince him to sit the exam. He won a place but ultimately rejected it, choosing instead to reapply to Oxford following his National Service in the hopes of impressing a love interest who had won an Oxford scholarship.

The Bodleian collection holds previously unpublished notes for the documentary, which shed light on this period of Bennett’s life. The Oxbridge applications were, he writes, ‘a chasm to be jumped both academically and socially, a divide I hardly hoped I could cross.’ Coming from a school with little-to-no history of getting boys into Oxbridge, and having no individual tuition, he had no idea what he was up against when competing with boys from more privileged backgrounds. The weekend of the Cambridge interview was his first brush with public schoolboys en masse and he was shocked by their greed and poor manners; nonetheless, he took pleasure in feeling that he had crossed the class divide. During the Oxford scholarship exam, the invigilator addressed the candidates as ‘gentlemen’, a new experience for Bennett: this bolstered him a few months later when, during his National Service, he was made to scrub out the sergeant’s mess urinals with his bare hands.

Once he had matriculated, Bennett’s sense of confidence in his studies became no more pronounced:

My tutorials saw no … intellectual action at all and were more like visits to the doctor… tentative, awkward and punctuated by long silences on both sides. I sat there slightly shamefaced, hoping to conceal my ignorance… a situation that was much the same after I graduated, when I was giving the tutorial, not taking it.

He recollects that the method of teaching history at Oxford was to argue undergraduates out of their received opinions in the first instance; then, when they had acquired a new-found revisionist radicalism, to argue them out of that, too. They were thus left with complete uncertainty regarding historical evidence, but an improved ability to argue. In desperation, as finals approached, Bennett developed an exam technique that would demonstrate a certain rhetorical skill, if not a ready grasp of historical truth:

I reduced all my notes to a series of headings and quotations on correspondence cards, forty or fifty in number and carried half a dozen or so of these cards about with me wherever I went so that I soon knew the contents off by heart. I then looked at a selection of old examination papers and reduced the type of questions to a set of formulae and practised turning any question round so that it fitted the material I had on my cards.

Bennett’s descriptions of academia foreground a sense of theatricality: the ability to ‘put on a show’, to perform rhetorical sleights of hand with the available material in order to demonstrate originality rather than balance or reason. In fact, rather ironically, it seems to have been this theatricality that pushed him away from academia and into the actual theatre. Though Exeter’s theatrical society had been in decline during his time there (much to the relief of college officials), it was through writing in the undergraduates’ ‘Suggestions Book’ and performing in college smoking concerts that Bennett discovered he could make people laugh, and that he enjoyed doing so. Some of his sketches from this time, such as his cod Anglican sermon, later featured in Beyond the Fringe.

Beyond_the_Fringe_original_cast (1)
Original cast of Beyond the Fringe, which played on Broadway from 1962 to 1964. From left: Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.

Much to his surprise he emerged with a first, so was given funding to stay on at Oxford and teach. By this time, he had spent five years at the university and felt, increasingly, that he would never become a don. His research was showing no signs of turning into a thesis, and he had taken to putting the clocks forward before his pupils arrived for tutorials, so that the awkward sessions would finish faster. However, his comedy writing was beginning to gain traction. That year, the Oxford Theatre Group put on a revue at the Fringe, which was so successful that the festival invited Bennett, Dudley Moore and others to put on their own revue the following year. This led to performing Beyond the Fringe in London theatres, and Bennett commuted between London and Oxford until the show transferred to Broadway in 1962, prompting him to abandon academia altogether:

The rest, one might say pompously, is history. Except that in my case the opposite was true. What it had been was history. What it was to be was not history at all.

Summing up his time at Oxford, he later mused:

I ought to say what it was I got out of Oxford … Certainly it wasn’t habits of thought or rigour of mind and one of the reasons I became a playwright is that it’s a profession where sloppy thinking is not always a disadvantage.

These doubts about how history is taught and written manifest themselves, over forty years after Bennett left Oxford, in his earliest draft of The History Boys. It is a play which, by implication, criticises the political context of its writing – as Bennett joked in an early letter to Nick Hytner in 2003, it ought to have been called ‘In the Lost Childhood of Alistair Campbell.’ Set in the 1980s, it documents the (ultimately successful) Oxbridge applications of a group of students at the fictional Cutler’s Grammar School in Sheffield. It contrasts the teaching styles of Hector, a traditionalist who champions learning for its own sake, with Irwin, a new teacher hired by the school to tutor the boys in exam technique: that is, the ability to twist history into a striking and original argument.

Irwin’s attitude towards history is undercut by comments made by the play’s other characters on its potential for terrible misuse. In one scene, for example, Posner – a Jewish student – reacts to Irwin’s encouragement of revisionist stances on the Holocaust by arguing that attempts to put the Holocaust into ‘proportion’ go halfway towards excusing it:

DAKIN: But when we talk about putting them in context it’s only the same as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After all, monasteries had been dissolved before Henry VIII, dozens of them.

POSNER: Yes, but the difference is, I didn’t lose any relatives in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The Bodleian holds some of the earliest notes for the play, scribbled on the back of a letter inviting Bennett to speak at the BBC Teaching Awards in 2002, on the topic of an inspirational teacher from his schooldays. In the foreword to the 2008 edition of the play, he notes that he had never encountered an inspirational teacher like Hector, who appears to have been modelled on teachers he heard about from public school colleagues during National Service. Hector seems both Bennett’s projection of the kind of teacher he wishes he had, and a mouthpiece for his doubts about the pitfalls of teaching history, as represented by Irwin.

An early speech of Hector’s, cut from later drafts, shows Bennett’s scepticism towards Oxford’s teaching methods, echoing descriptions of his own undergraduate experiences:

At Oxford in my day the idea was… and maybe still is… to teach the young to argue… So you were left at the finished mystified as to what you really did believe … just opinionated, clever and foolish. That was a liberal education.

Irwin’s exam techniques seem closely modelled on Bennett’s self-confessed approach to his finals. He encourages the boys to use the quotations from both high and low-brow culture which they have learnt from Hector – a staunch believer in the importance of memorising poetry – to illustrate, in increasingly absurd ways, the revisionist historical accounts they are writing. This method of reducing evidence to quotations – ‘gobbets’ – which can be manipulated to substantiate an argument is one that informs Bennett’s process of writing as much as his thematic material. Quotations, such as from the film Casablanca, dominate the early drafts, with whole scenes built around them.

The History Boys
A scene from The History Boys, in a 2014 production by OVO Theatre Company.

The History Boys does more than question the morality of teaching methods within the classroom: it asks what influence they may have in the broader public sphere. At the play’s end, we find that Irwin’s career has moved swiftly from teaching, to making historical documentaries, and then to spin doctoring:

IRWIN: I’m not in politics. Who’s in politics? I’m in government.

MRS LINTOTT: Well you’re not in monastic history, that’s for sure.

Bennett draws a clear parallel between rhetoric in history and in politics: Irwin, now a Campbell-esque figure, has turned his knack for persuasive narrative away from history and applied it instead to the present day. The play was written during the peak of New Labour’s power, when the government’s penchant for spin and soundbites went almost beyond satire – as heard, for example, in Tony’s Blair’s comment to the press on the day of the Good Friday agreement: ‘A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history on our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.’  The Bennett papers from this time are full of photocopies of book reviews and newspaper articles using Irwin-esque techniques, which appear to have guided his thought process in writing the play. For example, there is a review of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, which accuses the book of being:

…an extended and argumentative tutorial from a self-consciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against whatever he sees as the conventional wisdom – or, worse still, the fashion – of the time.

On a similar theme, there is a photocopy of an Observer review of Neal Ascherson’s The Coming of the Third Reich, which includes the line ‘it is inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgement.’ Evidently, the preferential treatment of interesting argument over attempts at truth-telling or moral assessment is one that Bennett may have first observed at Oxford, but extends far beyond the walls of the academy and into the public and political spheres.

Bennett makes no direct suggestions for how humanities  scholars can resist this trend, but it is possible to make our own inferences. Whilst absolute moral pronouncement is perhaps not the preserve of the historian or indeed politician – and we are wise to be aware of how our own context limits our capacity for making objective judgements about the past – I would suggest that a slide into absolute relativism is not a necessary response to these realisations. We can at once accept our fallibility in the pursuit of truth-telling, and still seek to tell the truth. Abandoning this ideal risks the kind of disturbing moral relativism observed by Posner as he watches his classmates explain away the Holocaust.

It is now fifty-five years since Bennett left Oxford, and fourteen since the writing of The History Boys; the foregrounding of spin in public discourse has spun ever further out of control. We are now firmly implanted in the age of ‘post-truth politics’, so naturally it matters that the academy, as much as politicians, refrains from spin-doctoring. In the mess of fake news and Donald Trump’s tall tales, we are unavoidably led back to Bennett’s question: what role have scholars of the humanities played in the creation of this chaos, and how might we use our own critical practices to resist it?
All images held in Creative Commons or public domain. 

Frances Salter recently completed her M.St. English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, with a thesis on the effect of theology on conceptions of language in Hill’s late poetry. She is now working on a novel while preparing for further study of theology in modern poetry.

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