The History Boys

October 22, 2007 at 12:06 pm 1 comment


I watched the film “the History Boys” one weekend recently. It was a birthday present from J, a colleague who is a fellow Oxbridge history graduate, although 20 years my junior and a graduate of the “other place”. Cambridge. She got a first. But we all know that degrees are not what they used to be, and I reckon my twenty year old 2:1 is worth at least a First at the “other place”. The rivalry is alive and kicking.

The film is set in a northern all-boys Grammar School in 1983. It follows a bunch of bright lads who are attempting to get into Oxbridge to study history. Sound familiar? This was the year that I won my place at Oxford. 1983! Twenty years ago. Most students today would consider that to count as history in itself.

Maslow, our furball baby cat, did his level best to disrupt proceedings. He must have found a nest of field mice. He brought two in, on separate occasions, until we decided to close his cat flap and lock him indoors. He was playing with them under the dining room table. Fortunately he hadn’t killed or punctured them. He brings them to us as gifts, apparently. So you have to praise them. After all, they are only doing what comes naturally. And, to be frank, he needs the exercise even more than I do. Luckily I was able to grab both of the poor squeaking, terrified baby mices and to liberate them through the dining room window. Maslow hadn’t spotted me do this so proceeded to sniff round every corner and piece of furniture looking for his erstwhile prey while C and I finished watching the DVD.

I enjoyed the film. It reminded me a little of the Dead Poets Society. You could tell that it was based upon a theatre play but it translated to film pretty well. And it dragged me right back to 1983, when I was aged 17 and in the first year of Sixth Form at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham.

There were a number of similarities between the film and my own experience. To start with, the school architecture and style was very reminiscent of my own Victorian educational edifice. My Grammar School in Handsworth, Birmingham. The boys wore similar uniforms. But their hairstyles were certainly much trendier than I remember in my own day. Mind you, I was in Birmingham.

I could see bits of some of my teachers in the actors, especially Mr Robins who taught me French, and Frau Walker who beat German into me. Literally. And, they got the look of the entrance exam papers right. A5 pamphlets, most unlike the A4 booklets of “O” and “A” Levels. Attention to detail.But, it was the differences between real life and the film that struck me most. All these boys were doing a crammer or seventh term. This means that they had already had their “A” Level results and had returned to their school for an extra term, aged 18, to prepare for their entrance exam. I didn’t do it that way. We didn’t have the option at my school. I took the entrance exam and had my interview the year before taking my “A” levels. I knew I had a place at Oxford before I took my “A” Levels. Well, as long as I achieved two grade “Es” that is. I did. Four “A stars” in fact. Swot!

People like me (the cocky, obnoxious, immature ones) used to “take the Michael” out of those who had resorted to a crammer. The extra term. Sorry Nye. But, it was not unusual. Some of my mates even deferred entry for a whole year. This was, however, most untypical in working class backgrounds.

My preparation was nowhere near as flamboyant, detailed, disciplined, extensive or all-encompassing as in the History Boys. True, the Headmaster coached us a little in Classical Studies and we brushed up a little on our Latin – for the entrance exam you were required to do one translation from a dead language such as Latin or Greek. This was a bit of a stretch for yours truly as I had only had one year’s study for both Latin and Classics, both of which I had dropped at the age of 12. Amo, amas, amat, amamas, amatis, amant. Hey, I’ve still got it!

Also, we learnt a few more complicated verb conjugations for the French paper. You had to do a translation in a modern language such as French, German, Spanish or Russian (for the wannabe spies / double agents). But, this was all done during the lunchtime break. We did go into our “A” level history course in significantly more detail though. And I learnt all of the history questions in Trivial Pursuit off by heart on my own time.

There was certainly no standing at the piano performing Noel Coward or Gilbert and Sullivan though. Nor were there any art history trips. We did go for a visit to Oxford, but this was more of a pub crawl than an educational experience. Literally. And, there was certainly no having your balls fondled by the homosexual history teacher!

In my recollection they were kept in the closet back in 1983 Birmingham. Homosexuals. Either that or I was totally naive. I suspect the latter. Or both. In the film two of the male teachers and two of the boys were gay or bi-sexual at least. I wasn’t aware of meeting an openly gay boy or man in person until I went to Oxford. Oh, except for the music teacher. But you never took any notice of him as everyone dropped music after the age of 12, and, your average 11 year old could have taken him in a fight.

I remember going up to Oxford for the entrance interview. This followed the written entrance exam. Incidentally, you (well “one” I suppose) go up to Oxford irrespective of which point of the compass you started from. It is one of those snobbish things – a reference to reaching, supposedly, the height of academic achievement.

I remember it was cold. December. And, it was dark. I was summoned into an ancient dusty, smoky, dark, oak-panelled room at the top of a cold, open stairway. I sat in a squeaky leather chair in front of a roaring log fire as my interviewing panel of three history dons sat snuggled on an antique sofa opposite. They offered me a glass of sweet sherry and interrogated me on my personal background, the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, and the empire building of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Not my favourite way of passing the time.

It was a bit like the scene in Shallow Grave when they are interviewing for a new flatmate. Except there was no one beaten up in the gents afterwards. At least not as far as I know. And the fact that the dons were all caricatures: Mr B an effeminate Mr Bean look-alike and an expert in Anglo Saxon English history; Mr P, a specialist in the Second World War, who was the spit of the Cambridge don described in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adam, which is a book I would recommend.

I was offered a scholarship. Clearly, I was offered a scholarship because of my in-depth knowledge of Latin, Classics and complicated French verb conjugations. Not! Actually, I reckon it was because they got grants to attract people from non-public schools, the fact that I could hold my sherry, and, because, amazingly, I knew more about twelfth century Swedish imperialism than a tutor in Anglo Saxon history………What a surprise.

Related Posts:

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Oxford

Handsworth Grammar School


Entry filed under: childhood memories, Films, Oxford, School. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Crash, Bang, Wallop! Middle-Aged Spread

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. ChildrenFurnitureFour  |  January 26, 2008 at 1:49 pm


    Great post……thank you for posting this, and in such great detail. I know you answered a lot of questions that many people are uncomfortable asking!



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