In 1957, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told a meeting of fellow Conservatives that most of the country had ‘never had it so good’. Alan Johnson’s moving autobiography This Boy describes life for a family that did not share in Britain’s widespread prosperity.
The conditions in which the one time Labour Home Secretary grew up would have shocked many people even at the time: no electricity, damp rooms, a cooker on the landing, for a long time no living room, and emptying buckets of urine in the morning because it had been too cold to go outside to the toilet during the night. This is no tale of Victorian poverty and squalor – this is 1960s west London, the London of the notorious unscrupulous landlord Peter Rachman, of race riots and where violence was commonplace. What is quite remarkable is that Alan Johnson, who would later be the choice of many to lead his party, did not grow up a bitter class warrior, though his childhood experiences no doubt helped shape his social conscience and ability to relate to others from all classes and backgrounds.
This Boy is much more than an account of a poverty stricken childhood; in that respect it was not unusual, even if it was markedly different from that of his peers, not just in his neighbourhood, but at the grammar school his mother fought to get him a place at. The book is a touching tribute to Johnson’s mother Lily, a woman who suffered most of her adult life with ill health, and whose only mistake was to marry Steve Johnson, a ladies’ man who swept her off her feet then left her to effectively bring up two children on her own while he played piano in pubs across London, bringing home very little of what he earned. Johnson describes how Lily took on several jobs to make ends meet and even then she couldn’t always provide three meals a day; he recalls how she would Alan and his older sister Linda to every last crumb of their school dinners just in case there was no hot meal that evening. In one particularly sad episode, Johnson recounts how he and Linda were left alone one Christmas when Lily had been admitted to hospital; Steve had failed to come home and the children, determined not to worry their mother any further, did not reveal that they had spent Christmas alone. A kind neighbour, discovering that Linda had cooked the chicken Lily had scraped the money together to buy still in its plastic wrapping, took in the fiercely close twosome and gave them a Christmas the likes of which they had never experienced before. To the day she tragically dies Lily never found out that Steve had not been with the children that day.
In fact Steve had been with a barmaid, a woman he would later set up (a very comfortable) home with in south east London. One day when Lily was at breaking point, the owner of one of the houses she cleaned at, a lawyer, came home to find Lily in floods of tears; feeling for the woman, the lawyer had Steve traced, and saw to the legal arrangements necessary to pursue Steve for maintenance payments. When later the payments ceased, the feisty Linda made her way across London to confront Steve and demand he meet his obligations. Alan accompanied her reluctantly but once his father had left the family he felt no sense of loss and no desire to have his father back in his life. Rather eloquently he writes “My fear wasn’t losing a father, it was having one”.
This Boy is not, however, a ‘misery memoir’; there is a great deal of warmth in Johnson’s recollections of trips to visit Lily’s family in Liverpool and a wonderfully remembered holiday in Denmark, funded by a charity that provided holidays for children from slum areas in the inner cities. He also writes about his love of music, how he learned to play guitar and how he and his best friend, later to be his best man, Andrew Wiltshire, played in bands in pubs all over London. Clearly Johnson was a talented musician and he explains how close he came to making it in the industry. Entertainment’s loss, however, would be politics’ gain but although Johnson’s story ends with his becoming a postman, there is no mention of his rise to become leader of the postal workers’ union and only occasional references to his later parliamentary career.
Beautifully written, This Boy is an uplifting read at the heart of which is a wonderful portrait of a remarkable woman. Though her life was undeniably sad – she hoped all her adult life for a home with her own front door and the offer a newly built council house in Welwyn garden City arrived two weeks after her funeral – she comes across as hard working woman who always had time for others, no matter how challenging her own situation was. At a time when tensions ran high in London’s multicultural areas, Lily was a compassionate woman who set an admirable example for her children.
Johnson’s ability to find those moments of colour and happiness among the grime and squalor make this a heart warming read. His self deprecating humour is refreshing in a world where career politicians take themselves very seriously. While the current government is criticised for being out of touch and unable to relate towards ordinary people, This Boy is an eloquent reminder of why Alan Johnson should be remembered as the leader the Labour Party would have done well to elect.
This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson
Published by Bantam Press, June 2013
With thanks to publishers for sending a review copy.
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