Passed/failed: An education in the life of Denis Healey, Labour peer

'I really had little interest in politics'


Lord Healey, 88, was a Leeds MP for 40 years, and became Secretary of State for Defence and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He stood twice for the leadership of the Labour Party, and has been described as "the best prime minister we never had". His autobiography, The Time of My Life, is out this week in a new paperback edition

My only unhappy memory of Drake and Tonson's, my primary school in Keighley, West Yorkshire, was when I went to school in my pinny and didn't know how to take it off. I had to hide, weeping, in the cloakroom until the teacher found me.

At seven, I got a scholarship to Bradford Grammar School. The junior school was great fun because it had a big wild garden with foxgloves and plants that you could pull up, whirl around your head and throw.

It was a very good school in terms of friends. When I first went to Bradford, I used to devour the exploits of the detective Falcon Swift in Boys' Magazine. I shared the cost, tuppence, with Arthur Spencer, my best friend, who went into naval intelligence and MI6.

If you can read Greek, you can read the best book written about politics, Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War - everything is there. The man who first gave me my love for the classics was "Tock" Lewis, who taught me when I was 12. He retired to Cornwall with his sister after my first year of Greek, and I spent a week or two every summer there. In the end, I realised that his interest in me was not purely intellectual, but he didn't get anywhere with me.

I read voraciously, and my watercolours were quite good. The arts so dominated my life that I really had little interest in politics, although I remember hearing our most popular master, Mr Benn, who'd been an officer in the First World War, defending the General Strike. I was always top in English, but rarely came first in my main subjects, Greek and Latin, so I was lucky to get an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford.

I read Mods (Moderations - Latin and Greek literature) and Greats (ancient history and philosophy), which took four years. Though I got my First in Mods, I didn't greatly enjoy it. I relied on my philosophy, not ancient history, for my First in Greats.

Balliol wasn't aristocratic like Christ Church, it was a meritocracy. A dozen of us met again as MPs after the war - including five who became ministers in Conservative governments and four who became Labour ministers. Balliol's snobbery was intellectual rather than social, so it attracted clever young men from all over the world. It was the first college to admit coloured students. There was a riot in a cinema when someone shouted, as a boat of Africans appeared on the screen, "Well rowed, Balliol!"

It was the Spanish Civil War and the anti-fascist movement that drew young people into the Communist party. I left it later, due to the Stalin-Hitler pact. A typical Communist was the author Philip Toynbee: very louche, drunk a lot of the time. To my knowledge, at Oxford we only had one spy, unlike Cambridge, which had Philby, Maclean and Burgess. And Blunt, whom I asked down to lecture on Poussin. I also organised the second Surrealist exhibition in Britain and a Picasso exhibition.

I did have a girlfriend, Pat, in Yorkshire, but I was attracted by a red-cheeked girl called Edna Edmunds. She was then described as the Zuleika Dobson of St Hugh's College. Edna and I started our married life at Christmas 1945.

All of us on the Left were certain that war was coming. I volunteered on the day war was declared and I missed my last Michaelmas term but they didn't call me up until I'd gone back for the next two terms and taken my degree. I joined the Home Guard and was sent to Ilkley Moor to stop German parachutists from landing. And I succeeded.

jonty@jonathansale.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album