With a childhood which reads like the plot of a film, Alan Johnson tells Yvette Huddleston why writing his memoir has opened up a whole new career.
There appears to be an image of 1950s Britain in the nation’s collective subconscious that it was a time of peace and prosperity, perfect families and full employment – but the reality for many people was quite different.
For Alan Johnson, growing up in the 50s in pre-gentrification Notting Hill in West London, the era meant extreme poverty, appalling living conditions and almost constant hunger.
He charts his childhood – without a trace of self-pity – in his hugely engaging, beautifully written and very moving memoir This Boy, which was published last year and has just come out in paperback.
When we meet in the attractive marina area of Hull on a sunny afternoon in late February, Johnson, Labour MP for West Hull and Hessle since 1997, is relaxed, friendly, open and full of energy. As well as having a pretty demanding full-time working life as a constituency MP, his new-found literary career is also keeping him busy. He will be appearing at York Literature Festival tonight to talk about the book and is already at work on the follow up to This Boy, provisionally entitled Mr Postman in reference to his time working at what was then the General Post Office. It will cover his early days doing shift work and the beginnings of his political awareness with his committed involvement in the Union of Communication Workers. He went on to become the union’s General Secretary in 1992 which eventually was to become his path into Labour politics.
The first book covers his first 18 years and the second “the next 18 to 20 years” – which may suggest that we also have a third book to look forward to at some point in the not-too-distant future. In describing the genesis of This Boy, Johnson says that “there was an interest in an Alan Johnson book”, but in discussion with his “very good agent” they decided that there had already been a number of political memoirs from senior Labour politicians of his generation – Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw had all recently published theirs – and so it might be better to go for a different angle. As an aside Johnson says that his agent is also Sebastian Faulks’s agent, adding with a smile: “Although I don’t suppose Sebastian Faulks tells people that he’s got the same agent as Alan Johnson.” He says he has kept a diary since his mid-20s so that might have been another option but then it became clear to him that there was an extraordinary story he could share.
“In 2007 when I was on Desert Island Discs, Kirsty Young said ‘his childhood reads like a blockbuster novel’, but people didn’t know all the details, so I thought that it would be worth trying to tell that story.”
And what a story it is. Born in 1950 Johnson spent his first few years living in slum housing which had been condemned in the 30s and was declared unfit for human habitation while his family were still in residence – the buildings were eventually demolished in the 1960s. Johnson’s family of four lived in two rooms with no bathroom and a shared outside toilet.
His mother Lily was originally from Liverpool, of Scots and Irish extraction, and had moved to London during the war, while his father Steve was a painter and decorator by trade but worked only sporadically, preferring to play piano, for which he had some talent, in pubs and clubs.
Feckless and unreliable, Steve was an inveterate womaniser who squandered what little money he earned “on clothes, beer, fags and gambling on the horses” and, worse still, when he was drunk – which was not infrequent – he was violent towards Lily. Since Steve was not interested in taking responsibility for the family’s finances it was up to Lily, who had a heart condition, to go out to work – which she did tirelessly despite her ill health – to provide for Johnson and his older sister Linda.
When Johnson was eight, much to the young boy’s relief, Steve who he describes in the book as “a dark shadow in our life”, left the family home to live with another woman. As a boy Johnson couldn’t understand why Lily didn’t rejoice at his departure in the way that he and his sister did. Now, of course, he appreciates his mother’s position.
“When you think about the role of women at the time – if you wanted to sign a Hire Purchase agreement you had to take your husband with you,” he says. “So, it was post-emancipation but pre-equal opportunities and there was a stigma if you were a single parent – it was generally thought to have been the woman’s fault in some way if her husband left her.”
Lily struggled on alone, with the unstinting support of the incredibly mature and resourceful Linda, working every waking hour and, although circumstances meant that her children were necessarily left to their own devices for much of the time she did a valiant job of bringing them up, instilling in them a sense of morality, dignity and decency.
“We might have been left alone, but we were never neglected,” says Johnson in the book. “She laid down few rules but we knew what was expected of us: to be polite and courteous and to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”
It was this kind of community spirit and pulling together that made life bearable for those living in abject poverty but Johnson is careful not to romanticise it.
“There was very much a sense of community but I set out to dispel this myth that the 1950s was a peaceful age of innocence,” he says. “The world wasn’t quite so welcoming if you were disabled or from a different race. At that time there were cards put up in the windows of rental properties and shops that said ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ – and I saw those every day.”
In the book he mentions a racially motivated murder that took place at the corner of his street in 1959 which is still unsolved to this day and writes that ‘the threat of violence... bubbled perpetually beneath the surface’.
In 1964 when Johnson was 13, and his sister Linda 16, Lily – whose health had been steadily deteriorating – died in hospital during heart surgery at the age of just 42. What Linda did next is quite extraordinary: little more than a child herself, she stood up to the authorities, who would have otherwise put Johnson in care, persuading them to let her look after her brother herself in their own council flat. No wonder the book’s dedication reads, movingly, ‘For Linda, who kept me safe’. Their relationship is still very close despite the fact that Linda has been living in Australia since the early 1980s.
“We used to write long letters and now we email,” says Johnson. “We only really see each other once every few years, but the bond is still there – as it would be from those circumstances – only I know what she went through...”
Describing himself in his memoir as a bookish, solitary child, Johnson feels that, in a sense it was books, music – he learnt to play the guitar and was in a number of moderately successful bands as a teenager – and Queens Park Rangers football club (he is a lifelong fan) that ‘saved’ him and prevented him from going off the rails.
The key positive influence in his life was his mother’s faith in the value of education – her own was cruelly cut short when her boorish father wouldn’t allow her to take up the offer of a grammar school scholarship.
“My mother dragged us to Ladbroke Grove library from the moment we could turn a page,” he says. “She wasn’t particularly widely read but she had a belief in books – that you could be autodidactic. She believed that if you read from a young age that was the best thing you could do for a child. Research has since proved that but my mother just felt that instinctively. I have no official qualifications whatsoever but the importance of books in my life has been immense.”
It is clear that he is delighted to have been able to write his own and he has been overwhelmed by the hugely positive response to it from readers and critics alike. “It’s opened up a whole new world for me,” he says. “And I love literature festivals – they are like the old public meetings we used to have. There is a great atmosphere and they are such a good forum for debate.” And with that he’s off to a meeting in the Wirral; he says he will be popping in to see his auntie Peggy – his mother’s youngest sister – while he’s there. “She can’t see very well but she got the audio book and loved it.” You can’t help feeling that Lily would have been very proud.