Another first-class delivery
Published by The Daily Mail (10th October, 2014)
Please, Mr Postman by Alan Johnson (Bantam)
One day in June 1969, a young couple from London took the train to Slough where they had been offered a council house. Seeing two policemen, they asked if they could direct them to the Britwell estate.
‘We should do, we have to go there often enough,’ replied one. His colleague added he would not live there ‘for all the tea in China.’
When the pair finally found the house, passing huge ‘Keep Britwell White’ grafitti, their two-bedroom property had boarded-up windows and an overgrown garden.
It was an inauspicious start to married life. But for Alan Johnson, raised in grinding poverty, it was an offer he grasped with gratitude. ‘We would make the Britwell estate our home,’ he writes. ‘Life there was good.’
He recalled how his mother spent her life in barely habitable slums, dreaming of the day she had her own front door — only to be finally offered a council house two weeks after her early death, when he was just 13.
The estate provides a backdrop for the second volume of the Labour politician’s memoirs, in which he goes from teenage postman married to a single mother four years his senior through to national union official — and marital separation — two decades later.
Like his acclaimed first volume This Boy, this is named after a Beatles song and beautifully written, a series of affectionate anecdotes and vividly observed sketches that conjure up a recent age slipped into the past.
This time it is the Seventies and early Eighties, working in a public service barely changed over the previous century. Postmen — and they were all men when he started — wore traditional uniforms, were often ex-forces and central figures in their communities.
He and his colleagues fed cats for owners on holiday, delivered magazines after surreptitiously reading them first and ate hearty breakfasts at farms during their round. Meanwhile, they relied heavily on overtime and Spanish practices to boost pay packets.
This is another elegiac slice of social history, conjuring up the days when drink driving was rife, postal workers saw the fax machine as a threat to their future and drivers had to ‘double declutch’ their clunky vans.
So different were society’s attitudes the young couple gave a false wedding date to their new neighbours since his wife ‘didn’t want anyone to know that she had been pregnant when we married’.
Abandoning ambitions of pop stardom after his guitar is stolen, the author educates himself by listening to the radio and reading — including a quality newspaper he hides at work ‘as if it were a pornographic magazine’.
For all its easy charm, this is a less compelling saga than Johnson’s story of his tough childhood in post-war London slums. There is too much detail of postal shift patterns and rather dreary union politics.
Yet Please, Mr Postman is still a first-class delivery, head and shoulders above most political memoirs with its self-deprecating style. ‘They dressed scruffy but talked posh. We dressed posh but talked scruffy,’ he says on meeting some middle-class militants.
By far the most moving chapter is about his sister’s husband Mike — ‘the kindest, gentlest, most decent man I’d ever known’ — who was a secret alcoholic, and killed himself in the basement of the shop where he worked.
Johnson idolised his brother-in-law, who arrived in his life shortly before his mother’s death. ‘The tears I found it so hard to shed when my mother died have poured down my face a hundred times for Mike and for the awful, tragic end to his short life.’
It is indeed a tragic tale with Mike’s drinking — stashes of vodka hidden in the garage and garden shed — spiralling out of control amid worries over his job. Then Alan’s beloved and big-hearted sister crumbles into delayed depression during a summer holiday in Wales and he is needed to support the sister who for so long supported him.
Then there is the subtle way this ‘militant moderate’ handles his political awakening.
He admits to having no idea when he became interested in politics, yet his evolution emerges in a series of revelatory vignettes. These begin with a snooker-playing colleague who worked during a strike and was sent to Coventry. ‘In the canteen he would rise from the breakfast table hopefully, snooker cue in hand, but nobody would play against him.’
After five months Johnson left, during which no one ever spoke to this poor man. ‘For all I know his isolation lasted until his retirement,’ he writes. ‘I colluded in trying to break a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since.’
He watched as Labour politics turned nasty amid the hard-left takeover, saw through the posturing of Tony Benn, rejects the chance to buy his council house and uses a telephone on the desk of his union’s general secretary to symbolise the Thatcherite new order.
His predecessor showed him this special white phone and said it was a hotline for ministers and senior civil servants seeking the general secretary’s opinion on crucial affairs of state. But during this beleaguered union baron’s decade at the helm, the phone only rang once. ‘The caller had been a woman asking if this was Sainsbury’s.’
The memoir ends with Johnson parting from his wife and driving away from Britwell after 19 years ‘keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead’