Poor but mostly happy …

This Boy by Alan Johnson

this boyPoliticians’ memoirs are not the norm for me to read when I choose non-fiction. Alan Johnson may be a fine politician, (and many think that Labour would be in a much better place if he had stood to become leader) but this volume doesn’t cover his later career, just his childhood, and what a childhood it was.

The book starts by Johnson looking back at the only photograph of his parents on their wedding day – neither look entirely happy. His father in uniform with a hint of swagger, his mother smiling somewhat strainedly beside him, her arm linked around his, almost clinging but also restraining.

Johnson grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – you’d never recognise it now. The buildings were due for demolition and they had just a couple of rooms with a cooker on the landing and outside loo. It can’t have been what his mother Lily, a Liverpudlian, was expecting when she moved to London but she was determined to make it her home. Steve wouldn’t even contemplate moving anywhere else. Alan, who was born in 1950, and his older sister Linda were born into this deprivation and like all children who don’t know anything different did their best to get the most out of this life.

They hadn’t reckoned on their father Steve though. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already had an affair – pretending to be visiting his mother every Sunday morning, instead having it away with the wife of a friend. Linda uncovered some of what was happening and it all came out. Steve left Lily for Elsie – but, as Johnson tells us, ‘Unfortunately, he came back.’

Johnson is unsparing in his depiction of his father:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to see an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women. But if I had been inclined to fantasize about the ideal father, as Linda was (she idolized her teacher at Bevington, Mr Freeman, and often voiced her wish that he was our dad), Albert Cox [father of his best friend Tony] would have been my choice.

Steve was a charmer who got most of his money from playing the piano in pubs, or occasionally getting lucky on the horses. He drank and gambled most of it away, and it was difficult for Lily to get any housekeeping out of him even before he eventually left, when that became nigh-on impossible. Lily always had to work to put food on the table, and her health suffered. There were many spells in hospital and she died when Alan was 12. Linda was just turning sixteen, and having brought up Alan all those times her mother was ill, was able to persuade the Council that they could survive on their own. They finally got a flat to share south of the river with that indoor bathroom they’d always craved.

The post-war poverty was appalling, yet Johnson is rarely maudlin about it. Luckily he was bright and caught the reading bug at a young age, later getting to Grammar school. Amongst the few treasured family possessions were his guitar and Linda’s Dansette record player, bought when Lily had a small win on the football pools one week. Books, football and music were his passions, but unfulfilled at school, he left at 15, ending up as a postman at 18 via shelf-stacking at Tesco; a good guitarist by then, he was also in a couple of bands. That is where this memoir ends (the second volume, Please, Mr Postman is now out, chronicling his pre-parliament working years).

There were many good times in Johnson’s childhood, usually short-lived, which he recounts with wit and a candour that is present throughout. Only once or twice does he ever credit his father with any visible parenting – one time when his father actually played trains with him is fondly remembered, but little else.

Alan Linda, and Lily when she was well, just got on with life. The real heroine of this story is Linda, the big sister who always looked out for the family. She was a remarkable young woman and thoroughly deserves our praise.

There is little sign in this volume of the politician that Johnson would eventually become except perhaps in his tolerance of things. Notting Hill was an area that would change rapidly with the influx of immigrant workers in the 1950s, one of Johnson’s best friends was a black lad, but Johnson doesn’t stray away from telling just his own story.

Despite not being a political memoir in the true sense, This Boy won the Orwell Prize (for political writing) and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, both in 2014. The Ondaatje prize is given for a book that evokes the “spirit of a place” and post-war Notting Hill certainly leaps off the pages.

Johnson’s childhood was terribly poor and marred by tragedy – you can’t help but be deeply moved by his account yet, it is also funny and equally uplifting. Johnson tells it how it was but remains chipper throughout, and staunch in his belief in his wonderful sister Linda. He has done his best to hide the misery which must lie underneath this marvellous book.  I’m so glad I read it. (10/10)

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This Boy by Alan Johnson. Corgi books 2013, paperback, 304 pages.
Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson. Bantam 2014, hardback.

0 thoughts on “Poor but mostly happy …

  1. This isn’t a book I would obviously read, either Annabel, as I tend to avoid politicians like the plague – but you do make it sound like a really good read. And what you say about the reading bug and grammar school strikes many a chord – education has made the difference to so many brought up in poverty. As the Manics say, “Libraries gave us power….”

  2. As you can tell, I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’ve now ordered vol II and that will start to get more political as he gets involved in trade unions – but still interesting I hope.

  3. Great review, Annabel. Oddly enough I was talking about this book with my mother-in-law today. She’d read some of it for her book group and was mildly annoyed that Johnson had stressed the poverty of his upbringing when she claimed that a lot of his living conditions – cold lino on the floor, no heating, outside loos – were simply what people had at that time. She said she’d been brought up in a very similar house but her family hadn’t been poor, exactly. I expect this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt! She’s quite tough – I freeze to death when I visit her, even in the 21st century. In many respects, this sounds a very intriguing memoir.

    • Interesting – I get her point – but his does sound really bad in all the detail he gives and the condemned buildings etc and then his mum died when he was 12. Of course I have no comparison – and thus found it a terrific read.

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