A memoir not to be forgotten

The Times proclaimed it 'The best memoir by a politician'. It's far more - a story that needs to be heard.

ThisBoyPolitical memoirs are written and forgotten. After sensational headlines in Sunday newspapers announcing the dirt to be dished, most are consigned to the charity shop pile or to be found in branches of The Works. Not always so memoirs by politicians:  Alan Johnson’s This Boy: A Memoir of Childhood is in a different category.

Johnson is best known as a Labour MP. In that capacity, he has served the people of Hull since 1997, and he was an important figure in the New Labour years, holding several major Offices: Trade and Industry Secretary, Education Secretary, Health Secretary and finally Home Secretary. While he lost out to Harriet Harman in the election to become Deputy Party Leader, he was at one time rumoured to be a candidate for Party Leader.

But Johnson’s roots are in the Union movement, and when you’ve read This Boy, you’ll probably begin to understand at least some of what motivates Johnson as a politician, and come to appreciate why this autobiography has been so rapturously received. It is both immensely personal and a powerful account of the Post War period; as debates about the future of the NHS and the Welfare State continue, it is a story that needs to be heard.

This Boy tells of the early years of Johnson’s life in London, from his days at primary school through to his first moves into adult life. Throughout two things stand out: the crippling levels of poverty Johnson and his family endured and the quiet determination of the two dominant women in his life.

Born in 1950, the Notting Hill Johnson grew up in was quite different from today’s highly fashionable,  expensive and white stucco splendour. Without proper sanitation, electricity or heating, damp and overcrowded, the housing Johnson lived in was condemned as unfit for habitation. The streets were violent. Racist attacks on newly arrived immigrants from the Caribbean were growing. Even in the 1950s, Fascism was a force to be resisted. At times, the conditions Johnson describes are more redolent of Dickens or the types of destitution catalogued by Booth’s poverty map.

While Johnson’s father Steve emerges as a selfish, feckless and deceptive womanizer, his mother Lily strove against complications of Sydenham’s Chorea. Desperately ill, with a weakened heart and a worn out body, Lily strove to provide adequate food for her family; as Johnson later admits, ‘I was constantly hungry’. When Lily’s health finally failed and she was admitted to hospital, it was Linda, Johnson’s sister, who provided the care the boy needed and who fought for the siblings to remain together rather than be taken into care.

Mr Smith – click to enlarge.

At the same time, Johnson catalogues his growing sense of self-awareness. From the primary school teacher with high ambitions for his charges to his painful years of Sloane Grammar School and his developing interest in music. It’s a complex picture. At times, his sister must fight against the system. At other times, there are those with a genuine social conscience such as the group of university students who organised holidays abroad for the poor, giving Johnson a rare holiday and an eye-opening visit to Denmark, and his English teacher, Mr Smith.

This Boy is a painful read. Powerful but without sentimentality, This Boy deserves a wide readership beyond any party political loyalties. Underneath the suffering, there are moments of genuine warmth and humanity, and even when reflecting on those who emerge as villains, Johnson writes with understanding and without bitterness.

And above all, when our newspapers are dominated by stories of growing inequality, it’s a forceful, compelling account both of the dreadful impact of poverty on human beings and, concurrently, the resilience of the human spirit.

It’s little wonder, then, that Please Mr Postman, the second volume of his memoirs, published last month, is at the top of my reading list.