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Gandhi and the Red Dean

How the Mahatma won one schoolboy's gratitude

As the world, led by President Obama, celebrates what would have been the 140th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, I offer readers a short anecdote that an old acquaintance with a long memory told me in my teens. In 1931 the great man spent 12 weeks in Britain, and while he was here he paid a visit to the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, later to become infamous as the "Red Dean" over his support for the Soviet Union and opposition to nuclear weapons. You can find a rather atmospheric photograph of their meeting here and here.

During his time in Canterbury, Gandhi took the time to chat to some of the pupils of the King's School, which is situated in the cathedral grounds. On one occasion, however, this caused one of them to be late for a lesson -- not an event that would go without notice in the disciplined environment of a 1930s boarding school. "Where have you been?" demanded the young teacher (none other than the friend who was to relate this incident to me over 50 years later).

This produced what my friend reckoned was probably the best excuse for tardiness he was ever given. "Sir, I've been talking to Gandhi, sir," replied the boy.

"Pretty unbeatable," remembered my friend -- and I think you'd have to agree.