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Unparliamentary Language: John Healey

Shadow defence secretary John Healey

5 min read

Marie Le Conte sits down with MPs and peers to find out more about the human side of politics. Shadow defence secretary John Healey on his most annoying habit, meeting Dolly Parton and sailing across the Atlantic

What were you like at school?

I didn't try hard enough in my work; I coasted, but I played every sport I could.

Which one was your favourite one?

Rugby, cricket, football...Even did a bit of athletics, I did anything that was going.

Oh, so all the sports.

Squash, tennis…

What's your earliest childhood memory? 

I'm in the depths of North Yorkshire in a vegetable garden with my tiny grandma. She died when I was three and a half. She was very much a Victorian figure, dressed in a very old fashioned way. She took me out to help pick the vegetables one morning. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I veered, when I was a boy, between wanting to be a footballer and a vicar. I then gave up both quite early doors and took life as it came after that.

What's something you've done once but would never do again?

Something I've done once and would like to do again but would never do again....I'd never sailed before and I crossed the Atlantic on a sailing boat. I flew out to the Canaries on a one way ticket when I was in my early 20s, I had no idea what I was doing. I managed to talk my way onto a sailing boat as crew, and we sailed across the Atlantic. 

How long did it take?

It took 17 days, because we have the trade winds with us to the Caribbean.

Did you get found out as someone who had never sailed before?

No, because what happened unfortunately, was that it began to dawn on me about a week into the trip that actually, part of the reason I hadn't been rumbled was that the man who owned the boat and his wife actually knew very little about sailing as well. They were Americans who had only ever sailed in the Great Lakes and they'd never done ocean sailing. So we were really quite well matched, but in the end lucky to get across.

Well that must have been stressful…

Coming back was worse. This was a 30-footer with no engine, and there was just me and this Dutch guy who owned the boat. He knew how to sail, but he had a particular muscle wasting disease, which meant that sometimes when he woke up, he couldn't move his hands, and he'd promised his family that he would never sail on his own, so I'd said: you need to get the boat back to Europe so I'll sail it with you. It was a very bad trip. It took us 43 days, and in the end we were arrived blown onto the rocks in the Azores.

What's a habit that annoys you in other people?


What's your most annoying habit?

I don't think I'm as bad as everybody else seems to think but...being late. Slightly late!

That's just every MP, isn't it?

Well, I'd like to blame it on the job, but Jackie, my wife would not blame it on the job. She says the trait was there beforehand.

If you had one trip in a time machine, where and when would you go?

I think I'd go back to one of those four or five hundred years when they were striking out across the ocean and not really knowing what was on the other side or if there was another side, or around a hundred years ago when they were first doing some of those arctic voyages. 

Have you ever been fired from a job?

No. And the worst thing I've ever had to do was to fire someone as an employer.

What's something your colleagues don't know about you?

They probably don't know – because I don't talk about it – that when I was 18, I worked a passage out to Durban on a merchant navy ship and hitchhiked up to Swaziland, where I spent nine months working and  living in remote villages making bricks and teaching people how to build a school.

...How did that come about?

I went out to volunteer with the Bishop of Swaziland, who was the first ever Black Bishop of Swaziland. He was getting old and needed some help as his driver and to help carry his vestments and his paraphernalia for church services, because often we had to just leave the car and walk for miles to very remote little communities and churches. It was pretty extraordinary for an 18 year old to do, and I'm not sure you could do it in this day and age : this was a period when the only form of communication with home or friends was those all their areogram letters. I managed one of those every couple of months and that was all they ever heard from me.  

If you could meet one famous person, who would it be?

Well, the most famous person I've met is Dolly Parton. She just great. She's got a real sharp, sassy, very strong sense of fairness and right and wrong, partly from her upbringing. I came across her because I worked with her and I worked with our then council to bring in her remarkable Imagination Library, that gives monthly free books for all under fives; we had it in Rotherham. I took her to meet Ed Balls when he was education secretary.

How did it go? 

Great. It was one of the few meetings the Permanent Secretary decided he wanted to join the Secretary of State for.

Have you ever broken the law? 

Yes. I grew up in rural North Yorkshire and we used to ride motorbikes and mopeds on the roads in the Yorkshire Moors with no crash helmets or anything like that. You know, when you learn to drive a tractor at 12 in the fields…

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Just keep going. Seize every opportunity you've got and just keep going. If I'd had that advice, I'd like to think I would still be trying to follow it. Oh, maybe that's what I need the time machine for, to go back and advise my younger self.


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