My son bought me this autobiography by the former leader of the postal workers’ union for Christmas and I have spent many rewarding hours by the fire reading it. Alan and I are almost the same age and we both have experience of the Union of Communication Worker, so that many of his memories strike a chord with me.
Alan Johnson’s start in life was difficult; his first home was a two roomed slum in London and his later accommodation, although slightly better, was still lacking in comfort and other than basic facilities. His father mostly ignored him during his early years and then he decamped altogether with another woman. A completely self-taught musician, his father spent his evenings playing the piano in local pubs, and most of the following mornings recovering from the night before. His work was meant to be as a painter and decorator, but his way of life meant that few bosses employed him for long. Alan’s mother was hard working but impoverished. He and his sister had to grow up fast.
Nevertheless Alan was fortunate in many ways; his mother was devoted to both her children and worked at all times except when her heart complaint necessitated stays in hospital. She was determined that her children would have a better life than she had, and did all she could to ensure that this was so. The family lived in Notting Hill and the local library was just round the corner. His mother enrolled Alan as soon as he could read. To his great credit he took advantage of this free facility, being able to go there frequently. Enid Blyton and Westerns took his fancy at first, but before he was a teenager he had discovered the delights of P. G. Wodehouse.
Besides getting them reading his mother Lily was desperate that her children should go on to Grammar School rather than the local Secondary Modern. This they duly did. His political allegiance now dictates an opposition to the idea of such schools, but there is no denying they did well for him. The opportunities for even the poorest in society were there in 1950s England, whether in free libraries, good schools (for those with the ability to benefit from education) or, for those in London at least, the ready availability of world-class museums. These too Alan took to his heart, and visited the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum on many occasions.
Those many philanthropists of the 19th century had left numerous institutions which the poor could take advantage of. The housing used by the Johnsons was provided by one such trust, and although the accommodation was of a poor standard by the post war years, the family did not have to deal with the attentions of slum landlords. A glorious summer holiday in Denmark was laid on by another such charity for poor children of Londoners and provided Alan with a view of the wider world beyond the squalor of his immediate surroundings.
His mother bought him a guitar with a pools win when he was about ten and this proved to be a companion to be struggled over for many long hours in his bedroom. Like every guitar playing youth (and there were a lot of us in the 1960s) he dreamed of being a pop star. Despite being auditioned by a well-known band nothing came of his ambitions and with a family of his own by the age of 18 he started his career in the P0st Office.
The impression I have got of his early life is perhaps not quite what he might have expected. Far from living a drab existence, in West London the cultural possibilities all around him were second to none. Had he been living in rural England the provision of services would have been infinitely worse. To take the even basics, mains water, drains and gas would not have existed in the 1950s; even the local telephone kiosk could have been miles away. But far worse would have been the lack of anything to do in your spare time; in spite of you rural surroundings there would not even have been a local park to play in. Even the audition with the band that Alan attended would have been impossibly distant to his country cousins. Alan Johnson has done extremely well to go from such poor beginnings to the height of political power (he was Home Secretary in the last Labour Government and there has been talk of persuading him to take on the leadership of the party), but he was not without some early advantages. Social mobility is now less easy than it was when he was growing up, and now a young person from a similar background might well find it harder to achieve what Alan Johnson has.
This Boy, Alan Johnson. Published 2013, the Bantam Press. ISBN: 9780593069646. Corgi edition 2014 £7.99.