A politician with real class
Published in the Daily Mail (May 10th, 2013)
This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson (Bantam)
When Alan Johnson was seven, his mother was in hospital over Christmas. His feckless father, Steve, took off to see his latest girlfriend, abandoning his two young children to fend for themselves for the festive period.
So Alan’s ten-year-old sister Linda took charge, pumping precious shillings into the electricity meter as she cooked the cherished chicken left for lunch.
The pair of youngsters were unfazed. Perhaps this was unsurprising given the deprivations of their impoverished upbringing, the steady decline into sickness of their mother and the selfishness of their appalling father.
But as Linda prepared their potatoes and cabbage, an acrid stench of burning stank out the slum house and wafted into the street. She hadn’t realised the plastic wrapping needed to be removed before the bird was stuck in the oven.
Neighbours rushed down, but the children were too ashamed to admit they’d been abandoned by their father so pretended he had popped out for a short while. Later, they met up with him after a long walk to the hospital.
Reeking of beer and cigars, he made his children promise to keep his disappearance secret from their mother. ‘Don’t tell Mum I didn’t come home. Tell her we had a nice dinner together. If you say anything else, it will upset her and she’ll have a heart attack and die.’
With such callous behaviour from a paternal role model who preferred to spend his time drinking, gambling, chasing women and playing the piano in pubs, it’s little wonder the future Labour Home Secretary grew up mistrustful of men and more comfortable with women.
He writes poignantly that his greatest fear was not ‘losing a father; it was having one’.
What’s remarkable that is that Johnson can reflect on his tough and impoverished childhood in This Boy with such clarity and lack of self-pity, especially given he went on to become a politician.
His memoir ends with his marriage at 18, working as a postman having left school three years earlier. And it reminds us what a rare figure he remains in a Parliament dominated by Identikit career politicians.
It’s far removed from being a misery memoir and nor does Johnson seek political capital from his extraordinary personal story. Rather, it’s simply the elegantly written story of a shy boy who loved reading, football and music while growing up in the most difficult circumstances.
His father eventually moved out to live with a barmaid when Alan was eight, rarely sending money to help his family as they scrimped to keep the heating on and the rooms lit. They were almost permanently hungry.
Meanwhile his mother, Lily, – a bright girl who had moved from Liverpool to London at the age of 18 – literally worked herself into an early grave. Despite a deteriorating heart condition, she ignored doctors’ warnings to ease up as she struggled to support her family, with fatal consequences.
Then his feisty sister, although only 16, saw off social workers who wanted to split up the siblings and pack Alan off into care. Instead, Linda persuaded the authorities to give them a council house, where she looked after her brother until she married and moved to Watford.
Reading the Dickensian depictions of poverty and stories of street life in the slums of Notting Hill – today one of the most fashionable parts of London – it’s hard to believe Johnson is writing about Britain in the Fifties and Sixties.
The streets were devoid of cars, with horses still commonplace. For the first six years of his life, his family had no electricity – and even afterwards, they often relied on candles when they could not afford to feed the meter.
His clothes were secondhand, donated by owners of homes cleaned by Lily, while he was told to eat as much as possible of his free school meals since there was often no food at home. There were urine buckets in the bedroom and swarms of flies in the living room.
But there was also a sense of community and the stoicism from a generation shaped by war. When his mother died at the tragically early age of 42, all the men he knew were totally undemonstrative in their grief. Yet three of them – while continuing to behave normally and saying nothing – showed him immense generosity, including giving the budding musician an electric guitar and building him an amp.
Johnson, who at one stage had ambitions to be a writer, leavens his memories with understated wit. I especially liked his description of a religious education teacher seen hitting a pupil with a newspaper while yelling ‘Christ is love, you little bastard’.
On the surface, this is the story of a poor boy growing up in post-war Britain. But more than that, it’s a testament to the power of family love and a tribute to two strong women who helped him overcome his background so successfully that some still think he should be the leader of his party and even of his country.