HB fic: Just Another Topic [Scripps, Irwin, general]
Title: Just Another Topic Author: celandineb Fandom: History Boys Characters: Scripps, Irwin Rating: general Summary: A lifetime later, Scripps comes to interview Irwin. Note: Written for jaebi_lit for yuletide 2007.
Scripps double-checked the page in his appointment diary on which he had written his interviewee's address, and glanced along the street. It was a posh one, far more so than he would have expected, the garden in the centre of the square well-kept behind its gates.
He was still a few minutes early. Taking a breath, he patted his bag to reassure himself that he had everything he needed: notebook and pens, minirecorder to pick up anything he might miss (although not all of his subjects were willing to let him use it, he always brought the machine along), cameras. Scripps took his own photographs, most of the time; only rarely did he use one of the staff photographers. He preferred to work alone when he could. Most people were more comfortable with only a single face to look at, and a relaxed subject said things he might otherwise conceal.
It was perhaps foolish to be nervous. He had done this a thousand times, and so had the man he was interviewing today. Moreover this was someone he'd actually known, once upon a time, if under very different circumstances.
A wooden ramp covered one side of the three steps at the front door. Scripps nodded to himself as he walked up. He'd seen the wheelchair on television. Ringing the doorbell, he glanced at his watch. Precisely on time, good.
When the door opened, he was ready, his head bent slightly forward so that he looked directly at the man's face. 'Good afternoon, Mister Irwin.'
'Mister Scripps. I'm so very pleased to see you again.' Irwin's handshake was firm. 'It's been, what, twenty-three years? Come in.'
He wheeled himself into the next room, and Scripps followed, closing the door behind him.
'This isn't for your usual paper, am I right? Not that I've anything against it, mind you; reputable as they go.'
'No, this one is freelance.'
Scripps named the magazine at which he hoped to place the article, and Irwin nodded, seeming pleased.
'I know the drill. Done scores of interviews myself, now, mostly with historians.'
Irwin didn't say other historians, Scripps noticed, and wondered at that.
'What angle did you want to take? History? Politics? Television?'
'Oh, I haven't really decided,' Scripps said. He glanced around the room, which was furnished in a rather cold, high-tech style, all black and white and grey. It didn't look like Irwin, somehow, although what did Scripps know of him to decide that? Nothing.
There was a splendid black baby grand piano in one corner, and Scripps's fingers itched to play it, though he hadn't touched the keys in years. On top of the piano he saw a cluster of photographs in silver frames, too far to make out the pictures clearly. 'Perhaps we could begin by having you talk about how you came to make the television series, and then your move into politics?'
'I'm not really in politics,' Irwin said.
'In an advisory capacity, I'd say you are. I expect readers would be interested in that.'
Scripps chuckled then. He'd cultivated his laugh, designed it to put people at ease. 'Would you rather we just talked, at least to start off? I can record instead of taking notes, and of course I'll check with you before going to print.' He pulled out the recorder, showed it to Irwin.
'That would be fine.' Irwin's expression flickered, too quickly for Scripps to decide what it meant. 'The last time I saw you was at Hector's memorial service. You went up to Oxford then – which college was it?'
'Merton.' Scripps adjusted the recorder's volume.
'Ah yes. You read history, like the others, but became a journalist—I've read your pieces here and there.'
'Followed in your footsteps, in a way.'
Irwin gazed at him speculatively, his eyes hidden by the light reflecting from his wire-rimmed spectacles. 'I suppose that's so. When you're reporting on facts, and not people, you find memorable angles.'
'Try to, anyhow. But what did you do, when you left Cutler's?'
'This and that for a few months. I ended up at the BBC fairly quickly though; an acquaintance who worked there told me that there was an opening for a historian on staff, and I applied. It took a long time before I was in front of the cameras, though.'
'Let's talk about that. You proposed the series "Second Look", right? It wasn't someone else's idea that you were hired on to do, but your own creation?'
'Completely mine. I'd been tossing the idea about with a few friends who worked there, and decided it was good enough to try to make it happen. We were filming the first show when I had the accident.'
'What accident?' Scripps asked.
'It was ridiculous. I'd had a few drinks, it was January and there'd been some freezing drizzle, and I slipped on my own front steps.' Irwin snorted softly. 'Mind you, I mightn't have done if my leg hadn't been bad from Hector's motorbike, but still.'
'So you've been in the wheelchair for... how long?'
'Fifteen – no, nearly sixteen years, I suppose. I don't actually have to use it; I can walk with a cane if I need to, but...' He shrugged. 'The chair lets me do much more than I could otherwise. Good for the cameras, too.'
'I suppose so,' said Scripps thoughtfully. He imagined that it was probably quite painful for Irwin to walk or stand for long, although that wasn't something the other man would admit in so many words. 'So then you had to convince the producers to re-film that episode, and keep on with making the rest despite your handicap.'
'Yes, exactly. But they'd put too much into it to pull out, luckily. It was a success, and we've done a dozen series of six episodes each over the years.'
'So which have been your favourites, would you say? Just one or two. Any of them stick in your mind?'
Irwin nodded. 'Several. But wait a minute; I'd rather like a cup of tea. You?'
'Thanks, I would.' Scripps watched Irwin wheel himself out of the room. He stopped the recorder and stood. It would doubtless be several minutes before Irwin returned; no harm in looking about. One could tell a lot from the art that a subject owned, for instance.
On the glossy pale grey walls was a series of framed line drawings, clearly all by the same artist. Scripps looked at one carefully; it took him a long moment to realise that it was meant to show two men entwined. He couldn't decipher the artist's signature and didn't recognise the work, deciding that Irwin had either known the creator or bought them all at once, perhaps from a gallery's show.
He looked at the pictures on the piano next, and was shocked to see his own young face. Somehow Irwin had got hold of the photograph taken at Fountains Abbey. There they all were: Crowther and Akhtar, Lockwood and Rudge and Timms, Posner and Dakin and Scripps himself. Irwin. Totty. Hector. He could almost smell the exhaust from the motorbike, feel the weight of Tudor Economic Documents, Volume Two against his thighs.
Scripps shook his head slowly and glanced at the other photographs. One showed Irwin with an older couple, presumably his parents, and another was a formal portrait of parents and two children. The woman resembled Irwin – his sister, Scripps supposed. Odd to think of Irwin as having a family, but of course he must.
The surface of the piano had a thin film of dust over it; several cleaner streaks suggested that additional pictures had been removed – for the interview? A noise in the hallway alerted him to Irwin's return, and he quickly sat back down.
Irwin had a tray balanced across the arms of his chair, with tea things on it.
'Milk, no sugar,' Scripps murmured, and Irwin poured and passed a cup to him, then set the tray aside on a low table.
'So tell me about one of your favourites of the programmes you made, then,' said Scripps after he'd taken a sip.
Irwin leaned back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other and balancing his cup on his knee. 'There have been so many...' he said reflectively. 'I suppose it would have to be one of the medieval ones. That was always my favourite field, you understand, although I didn't teach it to you boys as your examination was only on modern history. Perhaps the programme on King John.'
Scripps thought he might have seen the one that Irwin meant, but he asked anyway. 'What was it about? Why did you particularly enjoy making that one?'
'John is universally acknowledged as a bad king, and he hasn't had a group diligently working to rehabilitate his reputation as Richard III has had. Yet John managed to keep his throne to the end of his life, unlike for instance Edward II or Richard II. So I decided to see if I could show him in a more positive light.'
'How did you cope with Runnymede and Magna Carta? Surely it's difficult to explain away open rebellion and the imposition of a baronial council with executive authority greater than the king's.'
'Ah, but by 1215 John had already surrendered England to the pope, and received it back as a papal vassal. He wasn't the only monarch in Europe to have done so, either. But that meant that when the barons forced John to accept their charter, he could escape his oath not just by saying that it had been made under duress, but also that it had been given without the consent of his own overlord, and was therefore invalid. Not as weak and foolish a move as has generally been argued.'
Scripps nodded. It was the same approach that Irwin had used time and again as a teacher, and that he himself had found effective as a journalist: look at the usual interpretation of events, the straightforward one, and then twist it, see if there was some way to strike out along a new path. As a technique it certainly generated controversy, but for a programme on the BBC that was no bad thing. It had kept the ratings of Irwin's programmes high year after year.
'Do you think it was that episode of the programme that led to you going into government?' he probed.
Irwin frowned. 'I told you, I've never "gone into government" in any formal sense. I'm merely a consultant for various M.P.s. But no, I doubt that it was any particular topic that brought me to Parliamentary attention. I imagine that I simply seemed a person who could explain historical backgrounds in a way that would be, shall we say, accessible.'
'I wondered. Trial by jury was established partly by Magna Carta, after all, and it's known that you were advising the M.P.s on the bill last year that would have limited such trials, the "Safe Streets" one. I must say I'm glad it didn't pass. I'm curious if whether as a private citizen, as opposed to a political consultant, you felt it was a good idea?'
With a shrug Irwin replied, 'Does it matter? As you say, the bill failed to pass.'
'Mm.' Scripps had heard enough evasions to know that Irwin wouldn't say more. 'Well. What plans for the future? Will there be another series of history programmes, or are you finished with those, do you think? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?'
'I've been offered another series, but I haven't decided if I will take it up. I do rather enjoy making them, knowing that perhaps a few millions will see each one, sooner or later, and learn something about their past – for it is their past, our past, all of ours, no matter what our actual ancestry might be. The past of the nation is pertinent to all of its citizens. But filming episodes tends to involve a good deal of travel, and that's not easy with my leg as it is. I like to spend my nights at home, these days.' His mouth quirked in a half-smile. 'My partner prefers it that way, too.'
Scripps felt his eyebrows rise despite himself. He would never have expected the Irwin he'd known all those years ago to be so forthcoming about his personal life, especially given his close-mouthedness about his political opinions... and the missing photographs on the piano. 'That's understandable.'
'So I may instead stick with the political consulting, now that it seems that will be regular. I can't say more. Was there anything else that you needed from me?'
'I'd like to take a few pictures, if that's all right. In your study? I think it would go down well do show you at your desk, with books and so on.'
'All right; follow me.'
Scripps picked up his camera bag and walked after Irwin down a wide hallway. The study was quite unlike the living room, looking much more well used and scholarly, with piles of books and papers leaning precariously from every available surface. Green-papered walls, almost invisible behind laden bookshelves, contrasted with white curtains. The desk was a warm scarred wood, and Irwin looked perfectly natural and at ease as he wheeled himself behind it.
'That should do nicely.' Scripps took several shots while standing, choosing different angles, then knelt to photograph Irwin from below. From here the bones in his face came into sharper relief, giving an impression not so much of age as wisdom, an image that Irwin doubtless cultivated. If the picture turned out well, it might even lead the spread.
'Thank you very much,' Scripps said at last, standing and holding out his hand to Irwin. 'I think this will make an excellent piece, and I'll be in touch with you to double-check any quotations if the recording isn't clear.'
Irwin's hand was cool and dry. 'I look forward to it.'
'I can see myself out,' said Scripps as Irwin began to wheel himself out from behind the desk. 'I've already interrupted your afternoon long enough.'
Irwin nodded. 'A good day to you, then, Mister Scripps.' He moved back and pressed the power button on his computer, the blue glow reflecting from his spectacles as the screen lit up.
Scripps walked slowly down the hall, observing again the quality of the decor. Whatever Irwin's partner might do must be well-remunerated. He had just reached the front door and was about to turn the handle when he heard the murmur of two voices behind him and half-turned to see the outline of a figure standing in the hall at the door to Irwin's study.
'Did the interview go well?' Scripps heard.
That voice – Scripps recognised it instantly, but he let himself quietly out and heard the latch click shut behind him. Obviously Dakin had been there all along; if he had wanted to say hello, he could have done. Scripps smiled wryly to himself. So all these years later, they each got what they wanted, hadn't they?