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

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