Education: Passed/Failed John Monks

An education in the life of John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC. A former Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, he is a Visiting Professor at UMIST
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The Independent Online
Primary colours: Crosslee Primary School in North Manchester was a very happy school and Miss Stone, the headmistress who wore a Harris Tweed suit, was much loved by the kids and staff.

Secondary characteristics: Manchester had a three-tier system: grammar, technical and secondary modern. I didn't pass the 11-plus to grammar school, but I was quite pleased when I got to Dilcie Technical High School. It was in Moss Side; there were some tough - and what I now realise were disturbed - boys. Corporal punishment was still in frequent use. It would have been capital punishment if the deputy head had had anything to do with it...

Alf (Lord) Robens, the Labour minister who died recently, was there. John Thaw was in his last year when I was in my first year. I saw him play Macbeth: he was terrific. I've never met him since but I met his wife, Sheila Hancock, during the miners' dispute.

Soft Soper: I went to the local Methodist church which had an exceptional minister, a friend of [radical Methodist] Lord Soper, who ran youth clubs. You could be discussing Marxism or Buddhism. It attracted very interesting people; one of the attendees became an editor of Panorama. My first experience of public speaking was in a Methodist church: I had to give a sermon in a local chapel. My A-levels were English, history and geography. I got two As and an E; much to my disappointment, the E was in English.

University challenge: I read economic history at Nottingham University. I was always interested in the industrial revolution rather than political history. Rather than statesmen, I was interested in the history of trade unions, Chartists and the Labour Party.

Squashed flat: I had only been there three weeks when I ran into a squash- court wall. I had pins and needles and gradually became thinner and thinner. In the summer, I went to see my GP about it and was rushed into hospital. Was it multiple sclerosis or cancer of the spine? After the diagnosis by specialists, I asked the houseman (I won't use his name as it ended up as a disciplinary matter): "Is it disabling?" "Worse." "Fatal?" "Yes." "Quick?" "Fairly quick - four months at the outside." From 11am to 8 the next morning, I thought that was it. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and took some comfort from the fact that at the end the hero is waiting for death from the approaching Fascist forces of Franco.

The next day, the Sister said: "We don't know what's wrong with you." The houseman had got it completely wrong. It was in fact a kind of cyst, which was not malignant, and a weak bone which in the squash court collision had been knocked on to the spinal column. There were articles in The Lancet about the operation, which had never been done in this country; it is the only thing in which I can claim to be the first! My X-ray plates are in Manchester's medical school. I was in a plaster cast for eight weeks and missed a year of university.

On the Trotsky: Nottingham is a lovely university but initially I was very, very disappointed. There were a lot of public-school types, and a lot who were uninterested in anything except fashion and pop music; those interested in politics were in various sectarian left-wing groups. A friend of mine was chairman of the Labour Club and I went along when we needed to keep out the Trotskyites.