In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.
Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.
At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.
I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).
I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.
As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14:13).
The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.