Mark O’Brien: What hope would a young Alan Bennett have today?

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WHEN Alan Bennett turned up at Lawnswood School, he left more than merely a signed copy of his book and a simpering photograph for the school newsletter. He returned to his old school (known as the Leeds Modern School back in his day) to open a library named in his honour.

Few knew who he was, learning about him second-hand from reverential teachers who have grown old with his lilting syrupy voice, his piercing turn of phrase and his scrutinising yet forgiving eye for the eccentricities and unspoken sadnesses of humble ordinary suburban life.

I was much the same. I knew little of him myself in my school days.

Now 77 years of age (though still looking decidedly fresh-faced on it), his anecdotes about Thora Hird, Alec Guinness and the death of George VI are distant and almost other-worldly to the teenagers at Lawnswood under orders to sit down in a room and listen to him.

Yet Alan Bennett’s own story – the son of an Armley butcher rising to become a much-loved, widely-watched stage and screen writer and “national treasure” – may be perhaps far closer and far more relevant to the lives of those pupils than they will ever know.

Before the gathered pressmen, he spoke out to lament the damage done to the opportunities of budding working-class writers today by the loss of the now seemingly old ideal of education as a social and public responsibility, citing three cruel blows: closure of public libraries, cuts to EMA, and the rising cost of university.

What chance, amid all this, has a bright, sensitive, unassuming youngster from a modest northern home of realising their potential, of achieving success and making a difference to the lives of others as a writer? Would Alan Bennett have stood a chance had he been a young lad living above the butcher’s shop today?

When he left Leeds Modern, Bennett was offered an open scholarship to read history at Exeter College, Oxford. No nine-thousand-pound fees. No mountain of debt. Of course, when next year’s undergraduates arrive, they will only pay back their fees once they are earning £21,000 per year, with students from poor households receiving unprecedented bursary support.

The risk is that top universities will no longer be institutions for intelligent young people to share ideas and instead become training grounds for the most lucrative career paths, making the 21st century university a rather different environment to that which Bennett enjoyed in 1950s Oxford. He noted, too, the thorny issue of Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

The positive effect of the benefit, incentivising pupils to stay in school after their GCSEs with an allowance to support them through college or sixth form, was always hard to quantify.

As the son of a railwayman in east Leeds (rather than a butcher in the west), I received EMA: £30 a week which accrued through my two years in sixth form, only touching it once or twice (that is, before I took my place at Oxford and soon spent it all on alcohol, rosy Home Counties girls, and anthologies of modernist literature).

More effective for my growth was having a family who – with little disposable income – would sooner spend their cash on books for my studies than on a new HD TV.

And there perhaps lies the key to the real difference between Bennett’s salad days and those of his audience at Lawnswood. The closure of public libraries is a trend he has railed against often. A library – however humdrum, sanitised and municipal – is a castle of dreams and of aspirations for any youngster who has the chance to spend time within its book-lined walls. Qualifications from a good school and a degree are easier than ever to achieve, but only for those whose inner fire has been lit at a young enough age to fuel their potential.

Opportunities and programmes for young creative writers are far broader than in Bennett’s Leeds youth to be sure, but these inevitably target young people whose talent or imaginative spark has already been recognised by passionate teachers and keen parents.

Who knows what fate Alan Bennett would have had were he a young boy at Lawnswood today? But a new government initiative or a restructured tuition fees model would surely have achieved nothing quite as profound as simply having a safe, quiet place to read, someone to support him and a thought to share with the world.