The history boys by Alan Bennett, 2004

For anyone who doesn’t know, Alan Bennett’s wildly successful play follows eight sixth form boys in a grammar school in the North of England in the 1980’s as they are prepared for the Oxbridge entrance exams. It examines the questions of what is history?, how should it be taught? and more broadly, what is education and what is its point?

Idealistic English teacher Hector is unconvinced of the wisdom of the attempt, believing the boys only want to go:

“because other boys want to go there. It’s the hot ticket, standing room only. So I’ll thank you (hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford (hit) or Cambridge (hit) in my lessons. There is a world elsewhere.”

Hector’s approach to education is a long term one along the lines of Miss Brodie’s leading out. That is, of a large and varied amount of information for its own sake, passionate and committed and certainly not curriculum orientated!

Their often astringent history teacher Mrs Linott has seen to it that the boys:

“know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts” or as Hector puts it:

“You give them an education. I give them the werewithal to resist it.”

She is another unconvinced that it is best for each boy to try for Oxbridge. However, the school’s headmaster has his eye on league tables and open scholarships, and hires the pragamtic Irwin to give the boys a little polish and see to it that they ace their exams. Irwin derides them as:

Dull.

Dull. Abysmally dull.

A triumph… the dullest of the lot…

I didn’t say it was wrong. I said it was dull.

Its sheer competence was staggering.

Interest nil.

Oddity nil.

Singularity nowhere.”

and explains that what with bored examiners:

“The wrong end of the stick is the right one. A question has a front door and a back door. Go in the back, or better still, the side.

Flee the crowd. Follow Orwell. Be perverse…

History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entartainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.”

He sets about helping the boys to find an ‘angle’, believing from his own Oxbridge experience that “truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.”

This ideological conflict is the heart of the play. But it is not all so cerebral – these being young men there is plenty of sexual discussion, especially by the good-looking and cocksure Daikin. Rather disturbingly, both teachers make their attraction to a pupil or pupils clear, a weakness that is important to the play’s unexpected and moving conclusion.

In The history boys, Bennett convincingly creates eight individual boys full of promise at a turning point in their lives. With a liberal amount of cultural allusions high and low and humour, Bennett shows us what is the only education worth having”. At one point, Hector explains that:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

For this devoted reader, The history boys is full of such moments. I thoroughly enjoyed it (and will be seeking out the film version as a substitute for seeing it performed). Bravo Mr Bennett!

Book Bloggers’ Christmas Swap 2008

I’ve just found out about the second annual Book Bloggers Christmas Swap, and as it sounds like fun I’ll be participating.

The second annual what?
Last year, Nymeth organized a Secret Santa swap between book bloggers, and this year Dewey is helping out.

How does it work?
You sign up by sending an e-mail to xmasswap08 at gmail. You have until the 18th of November to do so. You will then be randomly assigned as another blogger’s Secret Santa.

What you have to do next is send that person a little something – it can be a book, a journal or bookmark, a box of holiday cookies, a mixed CD, whatever you can think of. It doesn’t have to be anything pricey, of course. Second hand books are perfectly acceptable, as are homemade gifts.

A different person will be assigned as your Secret Santa, and you’ll only find out who they are when you get their package in the mail.

Something to keep in mind: Because there are book bloggers from all over the world, this is going to be an international swap. I understand that not everyone can afford to send a package overseas, though, so if that’s the case with you, please don’t feel that you can’t sign up. Just include a note saying so in your e-mail, and we’ll make sure you get a blogger who’s near you.

What else should your e-mail include?
Other than your name, mailing address and willingness to send internationally, you should include your blog url and a short paragraph about what kind of gifts you like, so that your Secret Santa has an idea of what to get you. You could also include links to online wishlists, your librarything catalogue, etc. Anything that you think will make your Santa’s life easier!

Important dates: The most important date is the 18th of November. It’s very important that you sign up before then, because after that we’ll be assigning the Secret Santas, and once that has been done it would be complicated to include new participants.

As for when to mail your package, if you’re sending internationally it’s probably best to post it before the end of November. Last year, I suggested that people post theirs before the end of the first week of December, but that turned out to be a little late. If you’re sending within your own country there’s more flexibility, but remember that the mail tends to be slow around this time of year.

In any case, you should all know who your blogger is around the 20th of November, which leaves you at the very least ten days to get and mail your gift.

One more thing: if you could help spread the word by posting about this on your blogs, it would be very much appreciated!