Spectator – Carla Carlisle

The first real day of autumn, with that clear, bright light which reveals the laser-like webs on the vines, the curl of leaves about to surrender. I feel euphoric relief that this corner of Suffolk hasn’t morphed into the climactic twin of Los Angeles, when suddenly I remember what day it is and almost swoon. It is the day of the HAT: the History Aptitude Test, the exam for candidates applying to Oxford to read history. It’s one more hurdle, and while I’ve been greeting autumn, Sam’s been reading the instructions for the exam designed to weed out the pheno-menal candidates from the merely outstanding, to reduce the proportion of candidates interviewed from 85%to 50%.

Go to Google, type in History Aptitude Test Specimen Paper and you’ll understand my maternal dizzy spell: Answer ALL parts of BOTH questions. You have TWO HOURS. If you find the texts difficult and unfamiliar, don’t worry: the exercise is meant to be challenging, but we hope you will find it thought-provoking. Challenging and confirmation that I would not have been in the select group that schools back for Oxbridge, a realisation that first hit me during half-term as Sam and I sat in the cinema watching The History Boys.

The boys in the film are so clever, over-flowing with literary and historical references, stuffed with Auden and Hardy and Larkin, the First and Second Wars. I sat next to my own flesh-and-blood history boy and wondered if he felt under-educated in comparison. On the way home, I asked if he’d ever had teachers like the poetry/music/life-loving Hector who believes learning is important for its own sake, or the overtly cynical Irwin who denies that there is such a thing as objective truth, pushing the soundbite ‘Stalin was a sweetie, Wilfred Owen was a wuss’ school of history.

‘Of course not. That’s just Alan Bennett writing about the kind of teachers he wishes he’d had. Real teachers are like Mrs Lintott, who want you to stick to the facts, stick to the syllabus, and do well.’ Before I can ask, he adds: ‘Relax. Nobody talks like those boys. Nobody goes around quoting poetry’.

In the film, the parents of the history boys hardly figure at all. You don’t see mothers editing the Personal Statement. ‘You should leave out the bit about fly-fishermen being as touchy about their beliefs and methods as historians,’ I say, worried that (a) fly-fishing sounds privileged and (b) history tutors don’t like being called touchy. ‘Whose Personal Statement is this?’ asks the history boy.

Unlike Bennett’s boys, Sam’s been at a school with a long tradition of grooming boys for Oxbridge. Early on, he was advised not to apply to his father’s college as that legacy now works against you (unless, like Rudge in the film, your father was a scout in the college). And we’ve practiced ‘philosophical’ with Sam’s English father saying ‘it’s always something of a lottery’ and his American mother saying ‘it’s a crap shoot’.

After the movie, Sam grows quiet. I reckon he’s worrying about his HAT, about his essay on Philip II. Then he asks: ‘You think those boys would have applied to Oxbridge knowing they’d get in debt?’ Pause. ‘Do you think that Rudge’s son will be told not to apply to Christ Church?’

I wonder if the autumn sun is shining through the high windows of the exam room where six history boys are taking their HAT. And then I have a Hector moment, a memory of a fragment of poetry that got me through exams, from Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this’.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 9 November, 2006.