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The History Boys: A Playby Alan Bennett
The History Boys: A Play
Irwin is in a wheelchair, in his forties, addressing three or four unidentified MPs.
IRWIN This is the tricky one.
The effect of the bill will be to abolish trial by jury in at least half the cases that currently come before the courts and will to a significant extent abolish the presumption of innocence.
Our strategy should therefore be to insist that the bill does not diminish the liberty of the subject but amplifies it; that the true liberty of the subject consists in the freedom to walk the streets unmolested etc., etc., secure in the knowledge that if a crime is committed it will be promptly and sufficiently punished and that far from circumscribing the liberty of the subject this will enlarge it.
I would try not to be shrill or earnest. An amused tolerance always comes over best, particularly on television. Paradox works well and mists up the windows, which is handy. 'The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom' type thing.
School. That's all it is. In my case anyway. Back to school.
Though the general setting is a sixth-form classroom in a boys' school in the eighties in the north of England, when Hector first comes in, a figure in motor-cycle leathers and helmet, the stage is empty.
His sixth-formers, eight boys of seventeen or eighteen, come briskly on and take Hector out of his motor-cyclegear, each boy removing an item and as he does so presenting it to the audience with a flourish.
LOCKWOOD (with gauntlets) Les gants.
AKTHAR (with a scarf) L'écharpe.
RUDGE Le blouson d'aviateur.
Finally the helmet is removed.
TIMMS Le casque.
The taking-off of the helmet reveals Hector (which is both his surname and his nickname) as a schoolmaster of fifty or so.
Dakin, a handsome boy, holds out a jacket.
DAKIN Permettez-moi, monsieur.
Hector puts on the jacket.
HECTOR Bien fait, mes enfants. Bien fait.
Hector is a man of studied eccentricity. He wears a bow tie.
Now fades the thunder of the youth of England clearing summer's obligatory hurdles.
Felicitations to you all. Well done, Scripps! Bravo, Dakin! Crowther, congratulations. And Rudge, too. Remarkable. All, all deserve prizes. All, all have done that noble and necessary thing, you have satisfied the examiners of the Joint Matriculation Board, and now, proudly jingling your A Levels, those longed-for emblems of your conformity, you come before me once again to resume your education.
RUDGE What were A Levels, then?
HECTOR Boys, boys, boys.
A Levels, Rudge, are credentials, qualifications, the footings of your CV. Your Cheat's Visa. Time now for the bits in between. You will see from the timetable that our esteemed Headmaster has given these periods the euphemistic title --
Posner looks up the word in the dictionary.
-- of General Studies.
POSNER 'Euphemism ... substitution of mild or vague or roundabout expression for a harsh or direct one.'
HECTOR A verbal fig-leaf. The mild or vague expression being General Studies. The harsh or direct one, Useless Knowledge. The otiose — (Points at Posner.) — the trash, the department of why bother?
POSNER 'Otiose: serving no practical purpose, without function.'
HECTOR If, heaven forfend, I was ever entrusted with the timetable, I would call these lessons A Waste of Time.
Nothing that happens here has anything to do with getting on, but remember, open quotation marks, 'All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use,' close quotation marks.
Who said? Lockwood? Crowther? Timms? Akthar?
'Loveliest of trees the cherry now.'
AKTHAR A. E. Housman, sir.
HECTOR 'A. E. Housman, sir.'
TIMMS Wasn't he a nancy, sir?
HECTOR Foul, festering grubby-minded little trollop. Do not use that word. (He hits him on the head with an exercise book.)
TIMMS You use it, sir.
HECTOR I do, sir, I know, but I am far gone in age and decrepitude.
CROWTHER You're not supposed to hit us, sir.
We could report you, sir.
HECTOR (despair) I know, I know. (an elaborate pantomime, all this)
DAKIN You should treat us with more respect. We're scholarship candidates now.
We're all going in for Oxford and Cambridge.
There is a silence and Hector sits down at his table, seemingly stunned.
HECTOR 'Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire.'
I thought all that silliness was finished with.
I thought that after last year we were settling for the less lustrous institutions ... Derby, Leicester, Nottingham. Even my own dear Sheffield. Scripps. You believe in God. Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge.
Why do you want to go there?
LOCKWOOD Old, sir. Tried and tested.
HECTOR No, it's 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.
DAKIN You're hitting us again, sir.
HECTOR Child, I am your teacher.
Whatever I do in this room is a token of my trust.
I am in your hands.
It is a pact. Bread eaten in secret.
'I have put before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.' Oxford and Cambridge!
He sits with his head on the desk, a parody of despair.
POSNER (Edgar) 'Look up, My Lord.'
'Vex not his ghost. O let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.'
'O, he is gone indeed.'
'The wonder is he hath endured so long.
He but usurped this life.'
Bell goes. Hector sits up.
'I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.'
'The weight of this sad time we must obey
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.'
TIMMS The hitting never hurt. It was a joke. None of us cared. We lapped it up.
CROWTHER He goes mad.
LOCKWOOD He hit me. He never hits me.
RUDGE He hits you if he likes you. He never touches me.
DAKIN (happily) I'm black and blue.
SCRIPPS It's true what he said. I did believe in God.
Nobody else does. Like stamp collecting, it seems to have gone out and I suspect even the vicar thinks I am a freak.
But the big man is glad.
'The Prayer Book. Hymns Ancient and Modern. Lucky boy!'
HEADMASTER Mrs Lintott, Dorothy.
MRS LINTOTT Headmaster?
HEADMASTER These Oxbridge boys. Your historians. Any special plans?
MRS LINTOTT Their A Levels are very good.
HEADMASTER Their A Levels are very good. And that is thanks to you, Dorothy. We've never had so many.
Remarkable! But what now — in teaching terms?
MRS LINTOTT More of the same?
HEADMASTER Oh. Do you think so?
MRS LINTOTT It's what we've done before.
HEADMASTER Quite. Without much success. No one last year. None the year before. When did we last have anyone in history at Oxford and Cambridge?
MRS LINTOTT I tend not to distinguish.
HEADMASTER Between Oxford and Cambridge?
MRS LINTOTT Between centres of higher learning. Last year two at Bristol, one at York. The year before ...
HEADMASTER Yes, yes. I know that, Dorothy. But I am thinking league tables. Open scholarships. Reports to the Governors. I want them to do themselves justice. I want them to do you justice. Factually tip-top as your boys always are, something more is required.
MRS LINTOTT More?
I would call it grooming did not that have overtones of the monkey house.
'Presentation' might be the word.
MRS LINTOTT They know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organised facts need no presentation, surely.
HEADMASTER Oh, Dorothy. I think they do.
'The facts: serving suggestion.'
MRS LINTOTT A sprig of parsley, you mean? Or an umbrella in the cocktail? Are dons so naive?
HEADMASTER Naive, Dorothy? Or human?
I am thinking of the boys. Clever, yes, remarkably so. Well taught, indubitably. But a little ... ordinaire?
Think charm. Think polish. Think Renaissance Man.
MRS LINTOTT Yes, Headmaster.
The Headmaster leaves as Hector comes in.
MRS LINTOTT Didn't you try for Cambridge?
I was brought up in the West Riding. I wanted somewhere new. That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn't mind where I went.
MRS LINTOTT Durham was good in that respect.
HECTOR Sheffield wasn't.
Cloisters, ancient libraries ... I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I'd probably never have worked out the difference.
MRS LINTOTT Durham was very good for history, it's where I had my first pizza. Other things, too, of course, but it's the pizza that stands out.
And fog, would you believe, one morning inside the cathedral. I loved it.
I wish some of them were trying to go there.
HECTOR No chance.
MRS LINTOTT No. Our fearless leader has made up his mind.
And they are bright, brighter than last year's. But that's not enough apparently.
HECTOR It never was, even in my day.
MRS LINTOTT Poor sods.
SCRIPPS I'd been on playground duty, so I saw him on what must have been his first morning waiting outside the study. I thought he was a new boy, which of course he was, so I smiled.
Then Felix turned up.
Irwin is a young man, about twenty-five or so.
HEADMASTER You are?
IRWIN The supply teacher.
HEADMASTER Quite so.
He beckons Irwin cagily into the study.
SCRIPPS Hector had said that if I wanted to write I should keep a notebook, and there must have been something furtive about Irwin's arrival because I wrote it down. I called it clandestine, a word I'd just learnt and wasn't sure how to pronounce.
HEADMASTER The examinations are in December, which gives us three months at the outside ... Well, you were at Cambridge, you know the form.
IRWIN Oxford, Jesus.
HEADMASTER I thought of going, but this was the fifties. Change was in the air. A spirit of adventure.
IRWIN So, where did you go?
HEADMASTER I was a geographer. I went to Hull.
IRWIN Oh. Larkin.
HEADMASTER Everybody says that. 'Hull? Oh, Larkin.'
I don't know about the poetry ... as I say, I was a geographer ... but as a librarian he was pitiless. The Himmler of the Accessions Desk. And now, we're told, women in droves.
Art. They get away with murder.
They are a likely lot, the boys. All keen. One oddity.
Rudge. Determined to try for Oxford and Christ Church of all places. No hope. Might get in at Loughborough in a bad year. Otherwise all bright. But they need polish. Edge. Your job. We are low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar School, Haberdashers' Aske's. Leighton Park. Or is that an open prison? No matter.
There is a vacancy in history.
IRWIN (thoughtfully) That's very true.
HEADMASTER In the school.
HEADMASTER Get me scholarships, Irwin, pull us up the table, and it is yours. I am corseted by the curriculum, but I can find you three lessons a week.
IRWIN Not enough.
HEADMASTER I agree. However, Mr Hector, our long-time English master, is General Studies. There is passion there.
Or, as I prefer to call it, commitment. But not curriculum-directed. Not curriculum-directed at all.
In the circumstances we may be able to filch an hour. (going) You are very young.
Grow a moustache.
I am thinking classroom control.
Classroom. Music. Posner sings some Piaf.
HECTOR Où voudriez-vous travailler cet après-midi?
RUDGE Dans un garage.
BOYS Non, non.
SCRIPPS Pas encore. Ayez pitié de nous.
HECTOR Dakin. Où voudriez-vous travailler aujourd'hui?
DAKIN Je voudrais travailler ... dans une maison de passe.
BOYS Qu'est ce que c'est?
Qu'est-ce qu'une maison de passe?
POSNER A brothel.
HECTOR Très bien. Mais une maison de passe où tous les clients utilisent le subjonctif ou le conditionnel, oui?
He motions to Dakin, who goes off.
Dakin knocks on door.
Voilà. Déjà un client!
Qui est la femme de chambre?
POSNER Moi. Je suis la femme de chambre.
HECTOR Comment appelez-vous?
POSNER Je m'appelle Simone.
Dakin knocks again.
AKTHAR Simone, le monsieur ne peut pas attendre.
Posner opens the door and curtseys.
POSNER Bonjour, monsieur.
DAKIN Bonjour, chérie.
POSNER Entrez, sil vous plait.
Voilà votre lit et voici votre prostituée.
HECTOR Oh. Ici on appelle un chat un chat.
DAKIN Merci, madame.
DAKIN Je veux m'étendre sur le lit.
HECTOR Je voudrais ... I would like to stretch out on the bed in the conditional or the subjunctive.
Dakin makes to lie down.
POSNER Mais les chaussures, monsieur, pas sur le lit.
Et vos pantalons, s'il vous plait.
DAKIN Excusez-moi, mademoiselle.
POSNER Oh! Quelles belles jambes!
DAKIN Watch it.
POSNER Et maintenant ... Claudine (Timms).
DAKIN Oui, la prostituée, s'il vous plait.
Scripps plays piano accompaniment, a version of 'La Vie en Rose'.
CROWTHER Monsieur, je pensais que vous voudriez des préliminaires?
DAKIN Quels préliminaires?
POSNER Claudine. Quels préliminaires sont sur le menu?
TIMMS (Claudine) A quel prix?
DAKIN Dix francs.
TIMMS (Claudine) Dix francs? Pour dix francs je peux vous montrer ma prodigieuse poitrine.
DAKIN Et maintenant, pourrais-je caresser la poitrine?
TIMMS (Claudine) Ça vous couterait quinze francs.
Pour vingt francs vous pouvez poser votre bouche sur ma poitrine en agitant ...
LOCKWOOD En agitant quoi?
There is a knock at the door.
POSNER Un autre client. (He lets them in.)
HECTOR Ah, cher Monsieur le Directeur.
The Headmaster comes in with Irwin.
HEADMASTER Mr Hector, I hope I'm not ...
Hector holds up an admonitory finger.
HECTOR L'Anglais, c'est interdit. Ici on ne parle que français, en accordant une importance particulière au subjonctif.
HEADMASTER Oh, ah.
Et qu'est ce-que ce passe ici?
Pourquoi cet garçon ... Dakin, isn't it? ... est sans ses ... trousers?
HECTOR Quelqu'un? Ne soit pas timide. Dites à cher Monsieur le Directeur ce que nous faisons.
The boys are frozen.
DAKIN Je suis un homme qui ...
HECTOR Vous n'êtes pas un homme. Vous êtes un soldat ... un soldat blessé; vous comprenez, cher Monsieur le Directeur ... soldat blessé?
HEADMASTER Wounded soldier, of course, yes.
HECTOR Ici c'est un hôpital en Belgique.
HEADMASTER Belgique? Pourquoi Belgique?
AKTHAR A Ypres, sir. Ypres. Pendant la Guerre Mondiale Numéro Une.
HECTOR C'est ça. Dakin est un soldat blessé, un mutilé de guerre et les autres sont des médecins, infirmières et tout le personnel d'un grand établissement medical et thérapeutique.
Continuez, mes enfants.
HEADMASTER Mais ...
A boy begins to moan.
AKTHAR Qu'il souffre!
LOCKWOOD Ma mère! Ma mère!
AKTHAR Il appelle sa mère.
LOCKWOOD Mon père!
AKTHAR Il appelle son père.
LOCKWOOD Ma tante!
HEADMASTER Sa tante?
TIMMS La famille entière.
HECTOR Il est distrait. II est distrait.
IRWIN Il est commotionné, peut-être?
The classroom falls silent at this unexpected intrusion.
IRWIN Commotionné. Shell-shocked.
There is a perceptible moment.
HECTOR C'est possible. Commotionné. Oui, c'est le mot juste.
HEADMASTER Permettez-moi d'introduire M. Irwin, notre nouveau professeur.
HEADMASTER Ce que je veux ...
HECTOR Veuille ... veu ... ille ...
HEADMASTER Vei-uille. Enough of this ... silliness. Not silliness, no ... but ... Mr Hector, you are aware that these pupils are Oxbridge candidates.
HECTOR Are they? Are you sure? Nobody has told me.
HEADMASTER Mr Irwin will be coaching them, but it's a question of time. I have found him three lessons a week and I was wondering ...
HECTOR No, Headmaster. (He covers his ears.)
HEADMASTER Purely on a temporary basis. It will be the last time, I promise.
HECTOR Last time was the last time also.
HEADMASTER I am thinking of the boys.
HECTOR I, too. Non. Absolument non. Non. Non. Non. C'est hors de question. Et puis, si vous voulez m'excuser, je dois continuer la leçon. A tout à l'heure.
Headmaster looks at Irwin.
They go as the bell goes.
RUDGE It's true, though, sir. We don't have much time.
HECTOR Now, who goes home?
There are no offers.
Surely I can give someone a lift?
Who's on pillion duty?
DAKIN Not me, sir. Going into town.
CROWTHER Off for a run, sir.
AKTHAR Computer club, sir.
POSNER I'll come, sir.
HECTOR No. No. Never mind.
SCRIPPS (resignedly) I'll come, sir.
HECTOR Ah, Scripps.
SCRIPPS The things I do for Jesus. (As he goes he gives Dakin the finger.)
POSNER I'd go.
I'm never asked.
DAKIN You don't fit the bill.
TIMMS Me neither.
DAKIN I tell you, be grateful.
IRWIN (distributing exercise books) Dull.
A triumph ... the dullest of the lot.
DAKIN I got all the points.
IRWIN I didn't say it was wrong. I said it was dull.
Its sheer competence was staggering.
DAKIN Actually, sir, I know tradition requires it of the eccentric schoolmaster, but do you mind not throwing the books? They tend to fall apart.
CROWTHER It's the way we've been taught, sir.
LOCKWOOD Mrs Lintott discourages the dramatic, sir.
'This is history not histrionics.'
TIMMS You've got crap handwriting, sir.
I read Irwin as 'I ruin'. Significant or what?
IRWIN It's your eyesight that's bad and we know what that's caused by.
TIMMS Sir! Is that a coded reference to the mythical dangers of self-abuse?
IRWIN Possibly. It might even be a joke.
TIMMS A joke, sir. Oh. Are jokes going to be a feature, sir? We need to know as it affects our mind-set.
AKTHAR You don't object to our using the expression, 'mind-set', do you, sir? Mr Hector doesn't care for it. He says if he catches any of us using it he'll kick our arses from bollocks to sundown, sir.
Irwin regards them for a moment or two in silence.
IRWIN At the time of the Reformation there were fourteen foreskins of Christ preserved, but it was thought that the church of St John Lateran in Rome had the authentic prepuce.
DAKIN Don't think we're shocked by your mention of the word 'foreskin', sir.
CROWTHER No, sir. Some of us even have them.
LOCKWOOD Not Posner, though, sir. Posner's like, you know, Jewish.
It's one of several things Posner doesn't have.
Posner mouths 'Fuck off.'
LOCKWOOD That's not racist, though, sir.
CROWTHER Isn't it?
LOCKWOOD It's race-related, but it's not racist.
AKTHAR Actually, I've not got one either. Moslems don't.
Another pause while Irwin regards the class.
IRWIN Has anybody been to Rome?
No? Well, you will be competing against boys and girls who have. And they will have been to Rome and Venice, Florence and Perugia, and they will doubtless have done courses on what they have seen there. So they will know when they come to do an essay like this on the Church on the eve of the Reformation that some silly nonsense on the foreskins of Christ will come in handy so that their essays, unlike yours, will not be dull.
Think bored examiners.
Think sixty, think a hundred and sixty papers even more competent than the last so that the fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine.
Come the fourteen foreskins of Christ and they'll think they've won the pools.
Irwin pauses as before.
You should hate them.
CROWTHER Who, sir?
IRWIN Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race. Put head to head with them and, on the evidence of these essays, you have none of you got a hope.
CROWTHER So why are we bothering?
IRWIN I don't know.
I don't know at all.
You want it, I imagine. Or your parents want it. The Headmaster certainly wants it.
But I wouldn't waste the money. Judging by these, there is no point.
Go to Newcastle and be happy.
Of course, there is another way.
The bell rings and he is going out.
DAKIN Yes, sir?
IRWIN Don't take the piss.
There isn't time. (He goes.)
TIMMS What a wanker.
DAKIN They all have to do it, don't they?
CROWTHER Do what?
DAKIN Show you they're still in the game. Foreskins and stuff. 'Ooh, sir! You devil!'
SCRIPPS Have a heart. He's only five minutes older than we are.
DAKIN What happened with Hector? On the bike?
SCRIPPS As per. Except I managed to get my bag down.
I think he thought he'd got me going. In fact it was my Tudor Economic Documents, Volume Two.
They stop talking as Posner comes up.
POSNER Because I was late growing up I am not included in this kind of conversation. I am not supposed to understand. Actually, they would be surprised how much I know about them and their bodies and everything else.
SCRIPPS Dakin's navel, I remember, was small and hard like an unripe blackberry. Posner's navel was softer and more like that of the eponymous orange. Posner envied Dakin his navel and all the rest of him. That this envy might amount to love does not yet occur to Posner, as to date it has only caused him misery and dissatisfaction.
Posner goes and they resume the conversation.
DAKIN I wish sometimes he'd just go for it.
SCRIPPS He does go for it. That's the trouble.
DAKIN In controlled conditions. Not on the fucking bike. I'm terrified.
SCRIPPS Of the sex?
DAKIN No. Of the next roundabout.
Rudge is having sex, apparently.
RUDGE Only on Fridays. I need the weekend free for rugger. And golf.
Nobody thinks I have a hope in this exam.
DAKIN Currently I am seeing Fiona, the Headmaster's secretary, not that he knows. We haven't done it yet, but when we do I'm hoping one of the times might be on his study floor.
DAKIN It's like the Headmaster says: one should have targets.
MRS LINTOTT The new man seems clever.
HECTOR He does. Depressingly so.
MRS LINTOTT Men are, at history, of course.
HECTOR Why history particularly?
MRS LINTOTT Story-telling so much of it, which is what men do naturally.
My ex, for instance. He told stories.
HECTOR Was he an historian?
MRS LINTOTT Lintott? No. A chartered accountant.
Legged it to Dumfries.
HECTOR Dakin's a good-looking boy, though somehow sad.
MRS LINTOTT You always think they're sad, Hector, every, every time. Actually I wouldn't have said he was sad. I would have said he was cunt-struck.
MRS LINTOTT I'd have thought you'd have liked that. It's a compound adjective. You like compound adjectives.
HECTOR He's clever, though.
MRS LINTOTT They're all clever. I saw to that.
HECTOR You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it. We are that entity beloved of our Headmaster, a 'team'.
MRS LINTOTT You take a longer view than most. These days, teachers just remember the books they discovered and loved as students and shove them on the syllabus. Then they wonder why their pupils aren't as keen as they are. No discovery is why. Catcher in the Rye is a current example. Or have I got the whole thing wrong?
HECTOR Maybe Auden has it right.
MRS LINTOTT That's a change.
'Let each child that's in your care ...'
MRS LINTOTT I know, ' ... have as much neurosis as the child can bear.'
And how many children had Auden, pray?
IRWIN So we arrive eventually at the less-than-startling discovery that so far as the poets are concerned, the First World War gets the thumbs-down.
We have the mountains of dead on both sides, right ... 'hecatombs', as you all seem to have read somewhere ...
Anybody know what it means?
POSNER 'Great public sacrifice of many victims, originally of oxen.'
DAKIN Which, sir, since Wilfred Owen says men were dying like cattle, is the appropriate word.
IRWIN True, but no need to look so smug about it.
What else? Come on, tick them all off.
CROWTHER Trench warfare.
LOCKWOOD Barrenness of the strategy.
TIMMS On both sides.
AKTHAR Stupidity of the generals.
TIMMS Donkeys, sir.
DAKIN Haig particularly.
POSNER Humiliation of Germany at Versailles. Redrawing of national borders.
CROWTHER Ruhr and the Rhineland.
AKTHAR Mass unemployment. Inflation.
TIMMS Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Internal disorder. And ... The Rise of Hitler!
IRWIN So. Our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First.
TIMMS (doubtfully) Yes. (with more certainty) Yes.
IRWIN First class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms. Manchester longs to have you. You can walk into Leeds. But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I have just read seventy papers all saying the same thing and I am asleep ...
SCRIPPS But it's all true.
IRWIN What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?
Let's go back to 1914 and I'll put you a different case.
Try this for size.
Germany does not want war and if there is an arms race it is Britain who is leading it. Though there's no reason why we should want war. Nothing in it for us. Better stand back and let Germany and Russia fight it out while we take the imperial pickings.
These are facts.
Why do we not care to acknowledge them? The cattle, the body count. We still don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. A photograph on every mantelpiece. And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It's not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise that so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there's no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
IRWIN You were the one who was morally superior about Haig.
DAKIN Passchendaele. The Somme. He was a butcher, sir.
IRWIN Yes, but at least he delivered the goods. No, no, the real enemy to Haig's subsequent reputation was the Unknown Soldier. If Haig had had any sense he'd have had him disinterred and shot all over again for giving comfort to the enemy.
LOCKWOOD So what about the poets, then?
IRWIN What about them? If you read what they actually say as distinct from what they write, most of them seem to have enjoyed the war.
Siegfried Sassoon was a good officer. Saint Wilfred Owen couldn't wait to get back to his company. Both of them surprisingly bloodthirsty.
Poetry is good up to a point. Adds flavour.
DAKIN It's the foreskins again, isn't it? Bit of garnish.
IRWIN (ignoring this) But if you want to relate the politics to the war, forget Wilfred Owen and try Kipling.
AKTHAR Thanks a lot.
'If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.'
In other words ...
TIMMS Oh no, sir. With respect, can I stop you? No, with a poem or any work of art we can never say 'in other words'. If it is a work of art there are no other words.
LOCKWOOD Yes, sir. That's why it is a work of art in the first place.
You can't look at a Rembrandt and say 'in other words', can you, sir?
Irwin is puzzled where all this comes from But is distracted by Rudge.
RUDGE So what's the verdict then, sir? What do I write down?
IRWIN You can write down, Rudge, that 'I must not write down every word that teacher says.'
You can also write down that the First World War was a mistake. It was not a tragedy.
And as for the truth, Scripps, which you were worrying about: truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.
DAKIN Do you really believe that, sir, or are you just trying to make us think?
SCRIPPS You can't explain away the poetry, sir.
LOCKWOOD No, sir. Art wins in the end.
The bell goes.
SCRIPPS What about this, sir?
'Those long uneven lines Standing as patiently As if they were stretched outside The Oval or Villa Park, The crowns of hats, the sun On moustached archaic faces Grinning as if it were all An August Bank Holiday lark ...'
The others take up the lines of Larkin's poem, maybe saying a couple of lines each through to the end, as they go — but matter of factly.
'Never such innocence, Never before or since, As changed itself to past Without a word --
'-- the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
'The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
'Never such innocence again.'
IRWIN How come you know all this by heart? (Baffled, shouts.) Not that it answers the question. (He goes.)
SCRIPPS So much for our glorious dead.
DAKIN I know. Still, apropos Passchendaele, can I bring you up to speed on Fiona?
DAKIN She's my Western Front. Last night, for instance, meeting only token resistance, I reconnoitred the ground ... Are you interested in this?
SCRIPPS No. Go on.
DAKIN As far as ... the actual place.
DAKIN I mean, not onto it and certainly not into it. But up to it. At which point the Hun, if I may so characterise the fair Fiona, suddenly dug in, no further deployments were sanctioned, and around 23.00 hours our forces withdrew.
Like whereas I'd begun the evening thinking this might be the big push.
SCRIPPS You do have a nice time.
DAKIN And the beauty of it is, the metaphor really fits.
I mean, just as moving up to the front-line troops presumably had to pass the sites of previous battles where every inch of territory has been hotly contested, so it is with me ... like particularly her tits, which only fell after a prolonged campaign some three weeks ago and to which I now have immediate access and which were indeed the start line for last night's abortive thrust southwards.
SCRIPPS I can't take any more. Enough.
DAKIN Still, at least I'm doing better than Felix.
SCRIPPS Why? He doesn't ...
DAKIN Tries to. Chases her round the desk hoping to cop a feel.
SCRIPPS I don't want to think about it.
DAKIN He's only human.
POSNER Actually, when you think about it the metaphor isn't exact. Because what Fiona is presumably carrying out is a planned withdrawal. You're not forcing her. She's not being overwhelmed by superior forces.
Does she like you?
DAKIN Course she likes me.
POSNER Then you're not disputing the territory. You're just negotiating over the pace of the occupation.
SCRIPPS Just let us know when you get to Berlin.
DAKIN I'm beginning to like him more.
POSNER Who? Me?
DAKIN Irwin. Though he hates me. (Goes.)
POSNER Oh Scrippsy. I can't bear to listen, but I want to hear every word. What does that mean?
Posner sings a verse or two of 'Bewitched' as Scripps plays and the class filters back.
HECTOR Well done, Posner. Now poetry of a more traditional sort.
Timms groans? What is this?
TIMMS Sir. I don't always understand poetry.
HECTOR You don't always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you'll understand it whenever.
TIMMS I don't see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet.
HECTOR But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying.
We're making your deathbeds here, boys.
LOCKWOOD Fucking Ada.
HECTOR Poetry is the trailer! Forthcoming attractions!
There is a knock on the door. Hector motions them to silence.
'O villainy! Let the door be locked!
Treachery! Seek it out.'
The door is tried.
HECTOR (whispers, or does he even bother to whisper?)
Knocks at the door?
The Trial, for instance, begins with a knock. Anybody?
AKTHAR The person from Porlock.
POSNER Don Giovanni: the Commendatore.
SCRIPPS Behold I stand at the door and knock.
TIMMS Gone, sir.
TIMMS (to the others) Irwin.
HECTOR Very often the knock is elided — the knock, as it were, taken as knocked.
Did the knights knock at the door of Canterbury before they murdered Beckett?
And maybe the person from Porlock never actually knocked but just put his or her head in at the window?
Death knocks, I suppose.
And of course, opportunity.
(looking at his watch) Now. Some silly time.
Where's the kitty?
Posner gets a tin and gives it to Hector.
TIMMS/LOCKWOOD Oh, sir, sir.
We've got one, sir.
HECTOR Fifty p each.
TIMMS It's a good one, sir.
LOCKWOOD You won't get this one, sir.
HECTOR That remains to be seen.
TIMMS We have to smoke, sir.
HECTOR Very well.
Scripps accompanies this scene on the piano.
TIMMS Gerry, please help me.
LOCKWOOD Shall we just have a cigarette on it?
Lockwood lights the cigarettes and gives one to Timms.
LOCKWOOD May I sometimes come here?
TIMMS Whenever you like. It's your home, too.
There are people here who love you.
LOCKWOOD And will you be happy, Charlotte?
TIMMS Oh Gerry. Don't let's ask for the moon.
We have the stars.
Hector pretends puzzlement, looks in the tin to count the kitty.
HECTOR Could it be Paul Henreid and Bette Davis in Now Voyager?
TIMMS Aw, sir.
HECTOR It's famous, you ignorant little tarts.
LOCKWOOD We'd never heard of it, sir.
HECTOR Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.
'The untold want by life and land ne'er granted
Now Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.'
Fifty p. Pay up.
HECTOR When you say shit, Lockwood, I take it you're referring to the well-established association between money and excrement?
LOCKWOOD Too right, sir.
HECTOR Good. Well, I will now tell you how much shit there is in the pot, namely sixteen pounds.
They go, leaving Rudge working.
MRS LINTOTT Ah, Rudge.
MRS LINTOTT How are you all getting on with Mr Irwin?
RUDGE It's ... interesting, miss, if you know what I mean. It makes me grateful for your lessons.
MRS LINTOTT Really? That's nice to hear.
RUDGE Firm foundations type thing. Point A. Point B. Point C. Mr Irwin is more ... free-range?
MRS LINTOTT I hadn't thought of you as a battery chicken, Rudge.
RUDGE It's only a metaphor, miss.
MRS LINTOTT I'm relieved to hear it.
RUDGE You've force-fed us the facts; now we're in the process of running around acquiring flavour.
MRS LINTOTT Is that what Mr Irwin says?
RUDGE Oh no, miss. The metaphor's mine.
MRS LINTOTT Well, you hang on to it.
RUDGE Like I'm just going home now to watch some videos of the Carry On films. I don't understand why there are none in the school library.
MRS LINTOTT Why should there be?
RUDGE Mr Irwin said the Carry Ons would be good films to talk about.
MRS LINTOTT Really? How peculiar. Does he like them, do you think?
RUDGE Probably not, miss. You never know with him.
MRS LINTOTT I'm now wondering if there's something there that I've missed.
RUDGE Mr Irwin says that, 'While they have no intrinsic artistic merit — (He is reading from his notes.) — they achieve some of the permanence of art simply by persisting and acquire an incremental significance if only as social history.'
MRS LINTOTT Jolly good.
RUDGE 'If George Orwell had lived, nothing is more certain than that he would have written an essay on the Carry On films.'
MRS LINTOTT I thought it was Mr Hector who was the Orwell fan.
RUDGE He is. Mr Irwin says that if Orwell were alive today he'd be in the National Front.
MRS LINTOTT Dear me. What fun you must all have.
RUDGE It's cutting-edge, miss. It really is.
TIMMS Where do you live, sir?
IRWIN Somewhere on the outskirts, why?
TIMMS 'Somewhere on the outskirts,' ooh. It's not a loft, is it, sir?
AKTHAR Do you exist on an unhealthy diet of takeaway food, sir, or do you whisk up gourmet meals for one?
TIMMS Or is it a lonely pizza, sir?
IRWIN I manage.
No questions from you, Dakin?
DAKIN What they want to know, sir, is, 'Do you have a life?'
Or are we it?
Are we your life?
IRWIN Pretty dismal if you are. Because (giving out books) these are as dreary as ever.
If you want to learn about Stalin, study Henry VIII.
If you want to learn about Mrs Thatcher, study Henry VIII.
If you want to know about Hollywood, study Henry VIII.
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.
And since I mention Orwell, take Stalin. Generally agreed to be a monster, and rightly. So dissent. Find something, anything, to say in his defence.
History nowadays is not a matter of conviction.
It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so.
RUDGE I get it. It's an angle. You want us to find an angle.
SCRIPPS When Irwin became well known as an historian it was for finding his way to the wrong end of seesaws, settling on some hitherto unquestioned historical assumption then proving the opposite. Notoriously he would one day demonstrate on television that those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbour were the Japanese and that the real culprit was President Roosevelt.
Find a proposition, invert it, then look around for proofs. That was the technique and it was as formal in its way as the disciplines of the medieval schoolmen.
IRWIN A question is about what you know, not about what you don't know. A question about Rembrandt, for instance, might prompt an answer about Francis Bacon.
RUDGE What if you don't know about him either?
IRWIN Turner then, or Ingres.
RUDGE Is he an old master, sir?
TIMMS 'About suffering, they were never wrong,' sir,
'The Old Masters ... how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window ...'
IRWIN Have you done that with Mr Hector?
TIMMS Done what, sir?
IRWIN The poem. You were quoting somebody. Auden.
TIMMS Was I, sir? Sometimes it just flows out. Brims over.
IRWIN Why does he lock the door?
They turn to each other in mock surprise.
AKTHAR Lock the door? Does he lock the door?
LOCKWOOD It's locked against the Forces of Progress, sir.
CROWTHER The spectre of Modernity.
AKTHAR It's locked against the future, sir.
POSNER It's just that he doesn't like to be interrupted, sir.
AKTHAR You have to lock the doors, sir. We are a nation of shoplifters, sir.
LOCKWOOD It's excrement, sir. The tide of.
TIMMS And there's sexual intercourse, too, sir. They do it at bus stops, everyone young going down the long slide to happiness endlessly, sir.
AKTHAR Free as bloody birds, sir.
IRWIN Does he have a programme? Or is it just at random?
BOYS Ask him, sir. We don't know, sir.
AKTHAR It's just the knowledge, sir.
TIMMS The pursuit of it for its own sake, sir.
POSNER Not useful, sir. Not like your lessons.
AKTHAR Breaking bread with the dead, sir. That's what we do.
IRWIN What it used to be called is 'wider reading'.
LOCKWOOD Oh no, sir. It can be narrower reading. Mr Hector says if we know one book off by heart, it doesn't matter if it's really crap. The Prayer Book, sir. The Mikado, the Pigeon Fancier's Gazette ... so long as it's words, sir. Words and worlds.
CROWTHER And the heart.
LOCKWOOD Oh yes, sir. The heart.
'The heart has its reasons that reason knoweth not,' sir.
CROWTHER Pascal, sir.
LOCKWOOD It's higher than your stuff, sir. Nobler.
POSNER Only not useful, sir. Mr Hector's not as focused.
TIMMS No, not focused at all, sir. Blurred, sir, more.
AKTHAR You're much more focused, sir.
CROWTHER And we know what we're doing with you, sir. Half the time with him we don't know what we're doing at all. (Mimes being mystified.)
TIMMS We're poor little sheep that have lost our way, sir. Where are we?
AKTHAR You're very young, sir. This isn't your gap year, is it, sir?
IRWIN I wish it was.
LOCKWOOD Why, sir? Do you not like teaching us, sir?
We're not just a hiccup between the end of university and the beginning of life, like Auden, are we, sir?
DAKIN Do you like Auden, sir?
DAKIN Mr Hector does, sir. We know about Auden.
He was a schoolmaster for a bit, sir.
IRWIN I believe he was, yes.
DAKIN He was, sir. Do you think he was more like you or more like Mr Hector?
IRWIN I've no idea. Why should he be like either of us?
DAKIN I think he was more like Mr Hector, sir.
A bit of a shambles.
He snogged his pupils. Auden, sir. Not Mr Hector.
IRWIN You know more about him than I do.
'Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm.'
That was a pupil, sir. Shocking, isn't it?
IRWIN So you could answer a question on Auden, then?
BOYS How, sir?
That's in the exam, sir.
TIMMS Mr Hector's stuff's not meant for the exam, sir. It's to make us more rounded human beings.
IRWIN This examination will be about everything and anything you know and are.
If there's a question about Auden or whoever and you know about it, you must answer it.
AKTHAR We couldn't do that, sir.
That would be a betrayal of trust.
Laying bare our souls, sir.
LOCKWOOD Is nothing sacred, sir?
POSNER I would, sir.
And they would. They're taking the piss.
'England, you have been here too long
And the songs you sing now are the songs you sung
On an earlier day, now they are wrong.'
IRWIN Who's that?
LOCKWOOD Don't you know, sir?
It's Stevie Smith, sir. Of 'Not Waving but Drowning' fame.
IRWIN Well, don't tell me that is useless knowledge.
You get an essay on post-imperial decline, losing an empire and finding a role, all that stuff, that quote is the perfect way to end it.
AKTHAR Couldn't do that, sir.
It's not education. It's culture.
IRWIN How much more stuff like that have you got up your sleeves?
The bell goes.
LOCKWOOD All sorts, sir!
The train! The train!
Scripps plays a theme from Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.
POSNER (Celia Johnson) I really meant to do it.
I stood there right on the edge.
But I couldn't. I wasn't brave enough.
I would like to be able to say it was the thought of you and the children that prevented me but it wasn't.
I had no thoughts at all.
Only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything at all ever again.
Not to be unhappy any more.
I went back into the refreshment room.
That's when I nearly fainted.
IRWIN What is all this?
SCRIPPS (Cyril Raymond) Laura.
POSNER (Celia Johnson) Yes, dear.
SCRIPPS (Cyril Raymond) Whatever your dream was, it wasn't a very happy one was it?
POSNER (Celia Johnson) No.
SCRIPPS (Cyril Raymond) Is there anything I can do to help?
POSNER (Celia Johnson) You always help, dear.
SCRIPPS (Cyril Raymond) You've been a long way away.
Thank you for coming back to me.
She cries and he embraces her.
IRWIN God knows why you've learned Brief Encounter.
BOYS Oh very good, sir. Full marks, sir.
IRWIN But I think you ought to know this lesson has been a complete waste of time.
DAKIN Like Mr Hector's lessons then, sir. They're a waste of time, too.
IRWIN Yes, you little smart-arse, but he's not trying to get you through an exam.
MRS LINTOTT So have the boys given you a nickname?
IRWIN Not that I'm aware of.
MRS LINTOTT A nickname is an achievement ...both in the sense of something won and also in its armorial sense of a badge, a blazon.
Unsurprisingly, I am Tot or Totty. Some irony there, one feels.
IRWIN Hector has no nickname.
MRS LINTOTT Yes he has: Hector.
IRWIN But he's called Hector.
MRS LINTOTT And that's his nickname too. He isn't called Hector. His name's Douglas, though the only person I've ever heard address him as such is his somewhat unexpected wife.
IRWIN Posner came to see me yesterday. He has a problem.
MRS LINTOTT No nickname, but at least you get their problems. I seldom do.
POSNER Sir, I think I may be homosexual.
IRWIN Posner, I wanted to say, you are not yet in a position to be anything.
MRS LINTOTT You're young, of course. I never had that advantage.
POSNER I love Dakin.
IRWIN Does Dakin know?
POSNER Yes. He doesn't think it's surprising. Though Dakin likes girls basically.
IRWIN I sympathised, though not so much as to suggest I might be in the same boat.
MRS LINTOTT With Dakin?
IRWIN With anybody.
MRS LINTOTT That's sensible. One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.
POSNER Is it a phase, sir?
IRWIN Do you think it's a phase?
POSNER Some of the literature says it will pass.
IRWIN I wanted to say that the literature may say that, but that literature doesn't.
POSNER I'm not sure I want it to pass.
But I want to get into Cambridge, sir. If I do, Dakin might love me.
Or I might stop caring.
Do you look at your life, sir?
IRWIN I thought everyone did.
POSNER I'm a Jew.
And I live in Sheffield.
MRS LINTOTT Did you let that go?
IRWIN Fucked? Yes, I did, I'm afraid.
MRS LINTOTT It's a test. A way of finding out if you've ceased to be a teacher and become a friend.
He's a bright boy. You'll see. Next time he'll go further.
What else did you talk about?
Mrs Lintott goes.
IRWIN What goes on in Mr Hector's lessons?
POSNER Nothing, sir.
Anyway, you shouldn't ask me that, sir.
IRWIN Quid pro quo.
POSNER I have to go now, sir.
IRWIN You learn poetry. Off your own bat?
He makes you want to, sir.
POSNER It's a conspiracy, sir.
IRWIN Who against?
POSNER The world, sir. I hate this, sir. Can I go?
IRWIN Is that why he locks the door?
POSNER So that it's not part of the system, sir. Time out. Nobody's business. Useless knowledge.
Can I go, sir?
IRWIN Why didn't you ask Mr Hector about Dakin?
POSNER I wanted advice, sir.
Mr Hector would just have given me a quotation.
Housman, sir, probably.
Literature is medicine, wisdom, elastoplast.
Everything. It isn't, though, is it, sir?
SCRIPPS Posner did not say it, but since he seldom took his eyes off Dakin, he knew that Irwin looked at him occasionally too and he wanted him to say so. Basically he just wanted company.
IRWIN It will pass.
POSNER Yes, sir.
IRWIN And Posner.
IRWIN You must try and acquire the habit of contradiction. You are too much in the acquiescent mode.
POSNER Yes, sir.
Posner accompanied by Scripps sings the last verse of 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'.
DAKIN So all this religion, what do you do?
SCRIPPS Go to church. Pray.
SCRIPPS It's so time-consuming. You've no idea.
DAKIN What else?
SCRIPPS It's what you don't do.
DAKIN You don't not wank?
Jesus. You're headed for the bin.
SCRIPPS It's not for ever.
DAKIN Yeah? Just tell me on the big day and I'll stand well back.
SCRIPPS I figure I have to get through this romance with God now or else it'll be hanging around half my life. But I don't see why I should wish it on any other poor sod.
The parents, of course, hate it. So ageing. Drugs they were prepared for, but not Matins.
Some of it, though, I still don't get. They reckon you have to love God because God loves you. Why? Posner loves you but it doesn't mean you have to love Posner. As it is, God's this massive case of unrequited love. He's Hector minus the motorbike.
God should get real. We don't owe him anything.
DAKIN Good thing to say at Cambridge, that.
DAKIN Why? It's an angle.
SCRIPPS It's private.
DAKIN Fuck private.
SCRIPPS Don't let Hector hear you say that. You're his best boy.
DAKIN What on?
SCRIPPS T. S. Eliot.
'A painter of the Umbrian School Designed upon a gesso ground The nimbus of the Baptised God. The wilderness is cracked and browned'But through the water pale and thin Still shine the unoffending feet And there above the painter set The Father and the Paraclete.'
DAKIN This is the one about the painting in the National Gallery.
DAKIN Don't tell me.
Piero della Francesca.
Actually, you know what?
We are fucking clever.
SCRIPPS (laughs) Do you know how to seem cleverer still?
Don't say Piero della Francesca. Just say Piero.
DAKIN Like Elvis.
SCRIPPS You've got it.
DAKIN The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers.
DAKIN It's consolation. All literature is consolation.
SCRIPPS No, it isn't. What about when it's celebration? Joy?
DAKIN But it's written when the joy is over. Finished. So even when it's joy, it's grief. It's consolation.
That's why it gets written down.
I tell you, whatever Hector says, I find literature really lowering.
SCRIPPS Do you really believe this?
SCRIPPS You're not just doing a line of stuff for the exam? Original thoughts?
SCRIPPS Because it's the kind of angle Irwin would come up with.
DAKIN Well, it's true he was the one who made me realise you were allowed to think like this. He sanctioned it.
I didn't know you were allowed to call art and literature into question.
SCRIPPS Think the unthinkable. Who's going to stop you? Only don't mention it to Hector.
SCRIPPS But if you reckon literature's consolation, you should try religion.
DAKIN Actually it isn't wholly my idea.
DAKIN I've been reading this book by Kneeshaw.
DAKIN (shows him book) Kneeshaw. He's a philosopher. Frederick Kneeshaw.
SCRIPPS I think that's pronounced Nietszche.
DAKIN Shit. Shit. Shit.
SCRIPPS What's the matter?
DAKIN I talked to Irwin about it. He didn't correct me.
He let me call him Kneeshaw. He'll think I'm a right fool. Shit.
Irwin and Hector.
IRWIN It's just that the boys seem to know more than they're telling.
HECTOR Don't most boys?
Diffidence is surely to be encouraged.
IRWIN In an examination?
They seem to have got hold of the notion that the stuff they do with you is off-limits so far as the examination is concerned.
HECTOR That's hardly surprising. I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education, too.
However, if you think it will help, I will speak to them.
IRWIN I'd appreciate it.
For what it's worth, I sympathise with your feelings about examinations, but they are a fact of life. I'm sure you want them to do well and the gobbets you have taught them might just tip the balance.
HECTOR What did you call them?
Gobbets? Is that what you think they are, gobbets?
Handy little quotes that can be trotted out to make a point?
Codes, spells, runes - call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.
IRWIN I just thought it would be useful ...
HECTOR Oh, it would be useful ...every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Except that they're learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like the other components of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.
IRWIN So what are they meant to be storing them up for, these boys? Education isn't something for when they're old and grey and sitting by the fire. It's for now. The exam is next month.
HECTOR And what happens after the exam? Life goes on. Gobbets!
Headmaster and Irwin.
HEADMASTER How are our young men doing?
Are they 'on stream'?
IRWIN I think so.
HEADMASTER You think so? Are they or aren't they?
IRWIN It must always be something of a lottery.
HEADMASTER A lottery? I don't like the sound of that, Irwin. I don't want you to fuck up. We have been down that road too many times before.
IRWIN I'm not sure the boys are bringing as much from Mr Hector's classes as they might.
HEADMASTER You're lucky if they bring anything at all, but I don't know that it matters. Mr Hector has an oldfashioned faith in the redemptive power of words. In my experience, Oxbridge examiners are on the lookout for something altogether snappier.
After all, it's not how much literature that they know. What matters is how much they know about literature.
Chant the stuff till they're blue in the face, what good does it do?
Mrs Lintott has appeared and the Headmaster goes.
MRS LINTOTT One thing you will learn if you plan to stay in this benighted profession is that the chief enemy of culture in any school is always the Headmaster. Forgive Hector. He is trying to be the kind of teacher pupils will remember. Someone they will look back on. He impinges. Which is something one will never do.
IRWIN But it's all about holding back. Not divulging. Something up their sleeve.
MRS LINTOTT I wouldn't worry about that. Who's the best? Dakin?
IRWIN He's the canniest.
MRS LINTOTT And the best-looking.
IRWIN Is he? I always have the impression he knows more than I do.
MRS LINTOTT I'm sure he does.
In every respect. He's currently seeing (if that is the word) the Headmaster's secretary.
IRWIN I didn't know that.
MRS LINTOTT Which means he probably knows a good deal more than any of us. Not surprising, really.
MRS LINTOTT One ought to know these things.
MRS LINTOTT Posner knows, I'm sure.
SCRIPPS About halfway through that term something happened. Felix in a bate, Hector summoned, Fiona relegated to the outer office.
HECTOR I am summoned to the Presence. The Headmaster wishes to see me, whose library books, we must always remember, Larkin himself must on occasion have stamped. 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'
HEADMASTER You teach behind locked doors.
HECTOR On occasion.
HEADMASTER Why is that?
HECTOR I don't want to be interrupted.
HECTOR I beg your pardon?
HEADMASTER I am very angry.
My wife, Mrs Armstrong, does voluntary work.
One afternoon a week at the charity shop.
Normally Mondays. Except this week she did Wednesday as well.
The charity shop is not busy.
She reads, naturally, but periodically she looks out of the window.
Are you following me?
The road. The traffic lights. And so on.
On three occasions now she has seen a motorbike.
Boy on pillion.
A man ... fiddling.
Yesterday she took the number.
For the moment I propose to say nothing about this, but fortunately it is not long before you are due to retire. In the circumstances I propose we bring that forward. I think we should be looking at the end of term.
Have you nothing to say?
'The tree of man was never quiet.
Then 'twas the Roman; now 'tis I.'
HEADMASTER This is no time for poetry.
HECTOR I would have thought it was just the time.
HEADMASTER Did I say I was angry?
HECTOR I believe you did, yes.
HEADMASTER Did you not think?
HECTOR Ah, think.
'To think that two and two are four And never five nor three The heart of man has long been sore And long 'tis like to be.'
HEADMASTER You are incorrigible.
I am assuming your wife doesn't know?
HECTOR I have no idea. What women know or don't know has always been a mystery to me.
Incidentally, she helps out at the charity shop, too. They all seem to do nowadays.
Philanthropy and its forms.
HEADMASTER And are you going to tell her?
HECTOR I don't know.
I'm not sure she'd be interested.
HEADMASTER Well, there's another thing.
Strange how even the most tragic turns of events generally resolve themselves into questions about the timetable. Irwin has been badgering me for more lessons. In the circumstances a concession might be in order. In the future, I think you and he might share.
Your teaching, however effective it may or may not have been, has always seemed to me to be selfish, less to do with the interests of the boys than some cockeyed notion you have about culture.
Sharing may correct that. In the meantime you must consider your position. I do not want to sack you. It's so untidy. It would be easier for all concerned if you retired early.
Hector is going.
HECTOR Nothing happened.
HEADMASTER A hand on a boy's genitals at fifty miles an hour, and you call it nothing?
HECTOR The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act. In the Renaissance ...
HEADMASTER Fuck the Renaissance. And fuck literature and Plato and Michaelangelo and Oscar Wilde and all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school and it isn't normal.
Hector has just seen the Headmaster and, having got into his motorcycle gear, is sitting alone in the classroom.
Posner comes in.
HECTOR Ah, Posner.
POSNER With Mr Irwin, sir.
HECTOR Of course.
POSNER They're going through old exam papers. Picking out questions.
No matter. We must carry on the fight without him.
What have we learned this week?
POSNER 'Drummer Hodge', sir.
HECTOR Oh. Nice.
Posner says the poem off by heart
'They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest Uncoffined — just as found: His landmark is a kopje-crest That breaks the veldt around; And foreign constellations west Each night above his mound.
'Young Hodge the Drummer never knew — Fresh from his Wessex home — The meaning of the broad Karoo, The Bush, the dusty loam, And why uprose to nightly view Strange stars amid the gloam. 'Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge for ever be; His homely Northern breast and brain Grow to some Southern tree, And strange-eyed constellations reign His stars eternally.'
HECTOR Good. Very good. Any thoughts?
Posner sits next to him.
POSNER I wondered, sir, if this 'Portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge for ever be' is like Rupert Brooke, sir. 'There's some corner of a foreign field ...' 'In that rich earth a richer dust concealed ...'
HECTOR It is. It is. It's the same thought ... though Hardy's is better, I think ... more ... more, well, down to earth. Quite literally, yes, down to earth.
Anything about his name?
HECTOR Mmm - the important thing is that he has a name. Say Hardy is writing about the Zulu Wars or later the Boer War possibly, these were the first campaigns when soldiers ... or common soldiers ... were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials. Before this, soldiers ... private soldiers anyway, were all unknown soldiers, and so far from being revered there was a firm in the nineteenth century, in Yorkshire of course, which swept up their bones from the battlefields of Europe in order to grind them into fertiliser.
So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer. Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name.
POSNER How old was he?
HECTOR If he's a drummer he would be a young soldier, younger than you probably.
POSNER No. Hardy.
HECTOR Oh, how old was Hardy? When he wrote this, about sixty. My age, I suppose.
Saddish life, though not unappreciated.
'Uncoffined' is a typical Hardy usage.
A compound adjective, formed by putting 'un-' in front of the noun. Or verb, of course.
Un-kissed. Un-rejoicing. Un-confessed. Un-embraced.
It's a turn of phrase he has bequeathed to Larkin, who liked Hardy, apparently.
He does the same.
And with both of them it brings a sense of not sharing, of being out of it.
Whether because of diffidence or shyness, but a holding back. Not being in the swim. Can you see that?
POSNER Yes, sir. I felt that a bit.
HECTOR 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.
He puts out his hand, and it seems for a moment as if Posner will take it, or even that Hector may put it on Posner's knee. But the moment passes.
Shall we just have the last verse again and I'll let you go.
Posner does the last verse again.
Dakin comes in.
And now, having thrown in Drummer Hodge, as found, here reporting for duty, helmet in hand, is young Lieutenant Dakin.
DAKIN I'm sorry, sir.
HECTOR No, no. You were more gainfully employed, I'm sure.
Why the helmet?
DAKIN My turn on the bike.
It's Wednesday, sir.
HECTOR Is it? So it is.
But no. Not today.
No. Today I go a different way.
'The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way, we this way.'
Hector goes briskly off, leaving Dakin and Posner wondering.
Copyright © 2004 by Forelake Ltd.
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