Alan Johnson, ‘This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood’
Boy, does Alan Johnson, my former CWU General Secretary, have a tale to tell. Well known as one of the few genuinely working class MPs and former senior Ministers in Westminster, it was less expected that he would craft such an intimate but compelling account of his incredibly deprived childhood. It also evokes an amazing picture of west London working class life in the 1950s and ’60s.
‘This Boy’ (the title is from a Beatle’s number), is the genuine article. With humour, but not a little bitterness, he brilliantly describes how his Liverpool-Irish mum, Lily, held it all together for him and his elder sister,Linda, in the post-war slum-conditions of the Ladbroke Grove – Notting Hill (with its race riots in 1959) area. His ‘awol’ pub musician/gambler/womaniser dad, Steve, buzzed in and out (then out altogether). That’s how Alan saw it from age 8 to 14, though of course, memoirs are by definition, selective. To make matters worse, his mum died from a heart condition in 1964, leaving 16 year old sister Linda to fend for both of them, keeping them out of ‘care’. He was still at the grammar school to which his aspirant mum had sent him (this bright boy was one of the few then who passed his 11+ exams). Alan was also fortunate in being a teenager in ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s, where he had access to all the best gigs and his musical talents blossomed playing in two bands. His other love, QPR, which he follows still, shows his sentimental side.
Alan’s account of his early life is so compelling that they are probably casting around for the actors to play the parts and characters which Alan has so sharply drawn in ‘loving’ detail. ‘This Boy’ justly reached number 3 in the hardcover best sellers lists. At £16.99, you don’t have to wait for the paperback – treat yourself to a good, easy, holiday read.
But I am looking forward to Alan’s next venture into print, taking the story on from the late ’60s, when he married aged 18, started as a ‘postie’ in Battersea and his involvement in the postal union (then the UPW). I want to know more about how his career took off on account of the major opportunities he got as a union official, eventually to become General Secretary of the UCW and the merged postal and telecoms CWU. I particularly want to hear the inside story of how he was talent-spotted by Tony Blair and piloted into Hull West (no NEC ‘Falkirk’ Inquiries then!). We in the CWU were sad when Alan was lured away by this rival Group’s blandishments, whose fee and status we couldn’t match.
Nonetheless, we wished him well and knew it would not be long before he went higher. They saw him as the ‘modernising union’ leader who best fitted their ‘project’ for ‘New Labour’ . With his anti-Post Office privatisation credentials, he helped them swing the abandonment of Clause IV at union and Labour conferences, and thus established Blair’s position as Labour leader. The rest is history. No wonder that he stayed with this fellow guitarist’s Group.
You don’t read many memoirs or biographies of union officials these days. This is very sad, as those officials who have recently retired, were involved in some of the most interesting times of the Thatcher era. This is partly a reflection of the fact that publishers are not interested in union matters. As a former Home Secretary and television pundit, Alan today has all the advantages. If only half of his childhood deprivations happened, good luck to him. But many of our union leaders (with as good life stories) are not without the contacts, resources and opportunities either to encourage publishers to take on able union writers. What ‘This Boy’ shows is that you have to have a story to tell (even if it isn’t your own story, but one you know well), and tell it well.