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

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

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child