19:45 EST, 19 June 2014
03:25 EST, 20 June 2014
Writer Alan Bennett – who said earlier this week his first impression of public school boys was: ‘They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another’
How my heart swelled with paternal pride on Father’s Day, when I discovered that our brilliant second son had beaten dozens of contestants from around the world to become runner-up . . . in the official Louis Theroux lookalike competition on Facebook!
Suddenly, every penny of the tens of thousands of pounds I invested in his public-school education seemed well spent.
Of course (and I say this not to denigrate his achievement in any way), I would have been even more elated if our Archie had come first in the contest, which was judged by the TV documentary-maker himself. What father wouldn’t?
But it’s enough for me that he deserved to win. Indeed, I share the outrage of our lad’s multitude of fans on Facebook, whose opinion can be summed up in the four words: ‘The boy was robbed!’
As one of them, Emina Mizic, put it: ‘He sooooo should’ve been the winner! What’s wrong with you ppl? I thought this was Louis!!!’ Another, Linea Skoglund, was more succinct: ‘Wow . . . Twin!!’
Will anyone contribute to my legal fighting fund, so that I can take Mr Theroux’s perverse award of only second place to judicial review?
All right, joke over. I’ll drop the leaden sarcasm and admit that I really am proud of Archie — though this is not because he bears a passing resemblance to the faux-naif TV presenter, famous for his revealing documentary on the odious Jimmy Savile.
I’m proud of him because he’s clever, good-natured, endlessly considerate of others, diffident and quietly funny — and he’s doing something thoroughly worthwhile with his life.
After running a charity to promote education and employment opportunities for travellers, he’s about to join the Teach First scheme in a North London state school, where he hopes to put the advantages he’s enjoyed to the use of children who have been deprived of them.
In fact, he is as far removed as it is possible to imagine from the writer Alan Bennett’s description this week of his first encounter with public schoolboys, when he was sitting an exam for Cambridge: ‘I was appalled. They were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be, but they were louts’.
I’ve long been in two minds about Bennett. Like millions of others, I’m a huge devotee of his plays — often funny and touching, always perceptive — and I bow to nobody in my admiration of his ear for the music of the spoken word.
But almost every time he pronounces on a matter of public interest, he seems to say something crass or downright offensive.
Alan Bennett said the public school boys he met when sitting an exam for Cambridge, pictured, ‘Were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy’
I confess that it was for a personal reason that it first struck me he might not be quite the cuddly, twinkly old treasure that so many take him for. This was when I read his published diary entry for the day after my father’s memorial service in 1988.
The service had been attended by Margaret Thatcher, who was then the Prime Minister, along with hundreds of other friends and dignitaries from across the political spectrum. Though Bennett had never met my father, as far as I’m aware, he seemed to take exception to a newspaper report of the occasion and the accompanying photograph of Mrs T.
He wrote: ‘The Prime Minister, flanked by her favourite bishop, Dr Leonard, looking caring at the service for T.E. Utley, for whom no one in the Tory world has a wrong word, though the presence at the service of the Chief Constable of the RUC plus the South African ambassador suggests that a different view is possible.’
I grant you that it’s not the rudest thing anyone has written about a friend and admirer of Mrs Thatcher. But unless I’m being over-sensitive, what he seems to have been insinuating by these snide and silly remarks is that my father, about whom he clearly knew nothing, might have been a believer in oppressing the black majority in South Africa and Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
Utley’s son is doing a Teach First course and will soon begin working in a north London state school (file photo)
As for the PM ‘looking caring’, is he suggesting she was just putting on an act?
But what annoyed me most was his implication that the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary ought to be persona non grata at a respectable British memorial service. This was at a time when heroic RUC men were laying down their lives, so that the rest of us — including bleeding-heart liberals such as Bennett — could sleep a little easier in our beds.
He was at it again last month, when he said the treachery of the Cambridge Five spies — Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt — was ‘excusable, because they thought that they were doing something to improve things, that they were morally on the right side’.
He went on: ‘The treason they’re supposed to have committed doesn’t nowadays seem to me to be a particularly important crime.’ He should try telling that to the widows and orphans of the hundreds of patriotic Britons whom the five betrayed and sent to their gruesome deaths.
Now up he pops again, to unburden himself of his view that private education is unfair, unChristian and ought to be phased out.
Up to a point, I agree with him.
Private schooling is, indeed, unfair — and I’m well aware that, with my
very average intellect and lifelong inclination to laziness, I would
never have got to Cambridge or found lucrative employment as a
journalist if I’d gone to the sort of school where Archie is to teach.
it was, my parents made enormous sacrifices to give me the unfair
advantage of a first-rate private boarding school in Suffolk, where
failure was not an option. In education, I reckon, high expectations of
pupils are a hugely important part of the battle.
Utley attended the prestigious – and very expensive – Westminster school, pictured. He says he certainly wouldn’t have made it to Cambridge had he attended a school similar to where his son will teach
Through the efforts of my teachers, I won a place at cripplingly-expensive Westminster School (the alma mater, incidentally, of both Kim Philby and Louis Theroux), which emerges year after year among the top three schools in the country for exam results — and often at number one.
I’m with Bennett, too, when he suggests that the divide between the independent and state sectors promotes an ugly form of class antagonism, which works both ways.
You can see it in the grossly offensive, arrogant, braying hoorays who think they’re superior to their less fortunate betters simply because their parents are rich enough to send them to famous public schools.
The other way around, you can also see it in some of the most vitriolic letters I receive, assailing me over my privileged education and my decision to send two of our four sons to fee-paying Dulwich College, before the money ran out.
In his sermon, Bennett declares: ‘To say that nothing is fair is not an answer.’
But I would suggest that it is at least a bit of an answer. It is not strictly fair, after all, that the author of The History Boys and those brilliant TV monologues is blessed with gifts of observation and expression denied to the vast majority of the rest of us. This surely doesn’t mean we should begrudge him the riches that have sprung from his natural talent.
Where he seems to me disingenuous is in his failure to pay due tribute to the help he received from his own grammar-school education in bringing that talent to flower.
Bennett is famed for his play The History Boys – about a group of school pupils aiming to get in to Oxbridge – which was made in to a film in 2006, cast pictured
Indeed, he avoids mentioning his view on selective education in the state sector, which gave so many like him a leg-up in life and did so much to bridge the class divide.
Is this because he wishes there were more grammar schools, but doesn’t want to upset his Left-wing friends by saying so? Or does he share their belief that mixed-ability schools offer children the best possible start in life?
Of course, I know that many comprehensives do a wonderful job against the odds. But looking at this country’s precipitous plunge down the international league tables for educational achievement, I would say the theory that these schools benefit poorer children has been pretty comprehensively exploded over the past half century.
Come, Mr Bennett, let us join forces and proclaim, loud and clear: ‘Open more grammar schools!’
Until we do, let’s keep those successful private schools in business, churning out literate, numerate and public-spirited products like a certain Louis Theroux-lookalike I could name.
God knows, children from poor working-class homes need all the help they can from the likes of good old Archie.