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Standing at Churchill’s bedside, a teacher’s first lesson and the joy of Santi Cazorla

The Diary from writer Jonathan Smith.

I’ve just been round Chartwell again. It’s as wonderful as ever – the terraces, the gardens, the ground falling steeply away from the house, drawing your eye to the Weald of Kent. The only disappointment: you aren’t allowed into Winston Churchill’s bedroom.

It was in that room that the 78-year-old prime minister was fighting for his life in the summer of 1953: the summer of the coronation, of the conquest of Everest and the winning back of the Ashes. Up in that room, he lay incapacitated by the severe stroke he had suffered after making a speech in No 10. Day and night, he was tended there by his doctor Lord Moran and by a nurse brought in under the strictest security.

Then came the cover-up. The press barons Beaverbrook, Camrose and Bracken – who owned the majority of our national newspapers – were secretly summoned to Kent. They paced the Chartwell lawn, the same lawn I have just paced, and agreed to sit on the story, to gag the news that their old friend the prime minister was unable to speak and unlikely to last the weekend. Nobody was to be told. Not parliament, not the country. Mum’s the word. It’s hard to believe, but 60 years ago you could keep such an extraordinary thing quiet.

We may like to think that such an episode could not happen today. By contrast with the 1950s, surely ours is an age of transparency and press freedom and accountability. But then we come up against the breezy cynicism of “a good day to bury bad news” and the Chilcot charade.

Because a film is being made of my book The Churchill Secret KBO, I now have been into Churchill’s bedroom. (What a contrast it makes with Lady Churchill’s grand one.) I looked up at the ceiling, the ceiling he looked up at. I imagined him lying there, speechless, him of all people: Churchill lost for words. It’s funny how something as simple as standing in a plain, small room, with a single bed, can make you feel back there in 1953 and in touching distance of a world leader.

Reading people

Nearly everyone in my family was a teacher – my mother, father, wife, aunties, uncles, father-in-law, brother-in-law – covering every kind of school. We talked and breathed chalk. At my primary school in the early 1950s, my father, mother and Auntie Joan were all on the staff. Three teachers out of five. Not fair, that. A bit like life. But it obviously didn’t put me off, as I was teaching at the age of 22.

I’ve just finished reading a new book by an American, Elizabeth Green, Building a Better Teacher. Is teaching, she asks, an art, or a science, or a complex science that underlies an art? Is it a skill that can be taught? Or is it mostly down to this simple but difficult question: does the teacher, as well as knowing his stuff, have that something that holds the class, which inspires the students to be critical and creative, to learn and to explore? These were concerns that absorbed me in the 40 years I spent in the classroom, sometimes floundering, sometimes feeling good and often both on the same day. Read all the books on teaching you like; the one thing I became sure of is that you won’t get far in the game if you can’t read people.

 

Silence is golden

The only fictional character in The Churchill Secret KBO is a nurse. I called her Nurse Appleyard, partly because I like the sound of that name but mainly because of the example of Bob Appleyard, the Yorkshire and England cricketer of the 1950s: a fine player and a fine man who overcame any number of personal tragedies.

Slings and arrows don’t come close to capturing it. Appleyard arrived home one day as a boy to find his father, stepmother and two little sisters all dead – gassed. He contracted tuberculosis and spent 11 months in hospital, where he lost half a lung, before fighting his way back on to the pitch. Then his son died of leukaemia at a young age, as did his grandson.

All this came out only much later. Apple­yard did not want to embarrass his family, so he said nothing, not even to his teammates, until 2003. He didn’t sell his story to the newspapers or tell the world. Very 1950s, you might say. I wonder what Bob, now in his nineties, makes of David Warner, the boorish Australian opening batsman, who shoots his mouth off at any perceived slight or trivial injustice on the field?

Bob Appleyard took 200 wickets in his first full season in 1951 and led the first-class averages (14.14). In my novel, Nurse Appleyard’s first name is Millie. Well, I couldn’t call her Bob.

 

Overgrown schoolboys

Once a teacher, always a teacher, and you never stop noticing types. In your class you sometimes have a mischievous kid, ready to pounce if your back is turned or you lose concentration. He’ll skirt round you and lead you a merry dance and you won’t see quite what he did. He tests your patience but it is mischief, not malice. He’s not a cynic; he’s playing with you, a benevolent scamp with a twinkle and tonnes of energy. In his own way, he makes your day.

Every so often, you see someone on the public stage who embodies the type. Right now, it’s Santi Cazorla, the Spain and Arsenal midfielder. 

“The Churchill Secret KBO” is published by Little, Brown.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.