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.
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.
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.