We’ve had Alan Johnson the lad from the slums of north Kensington, Alan Johnson the postman and Alan Johnson Member of Parliament and cabinet minister. Now comes the sequel: Alan Johnson the rock and roll years. Actually, it’s not quite a sequel since it covers much of the same territory as two of the previous volumes, albeit from a slightly different angle. Although Johnson went on to hold five cabinet posts, politics was never part of Johnson’s life plan. All he ever wanted to be was a rock star and, who knows, it was an ambition he might have realised but for the fact that his musical instruments kept being stolen.
As recounted in This Boy, his wonderful and hugely successful first volume of memoirs, Johnson’s start in life was, to put it mildly, unpromising. Born to an impoverished mother and feckless father in a condemned tenement, orphaned at 12, he left school at 15 without a single O-level and stacked shelves in Tesco’s. By the age of 17 he was married to a woman four years his senior who was already pregnant from a previous relationship. And yet in the teeth of great odds, he has made a remarkable success of life.
This is his life story set to music. It covers 25 formative years, from 1957 to 1982. Each year is allocated a different chapter and each chapter bears the title of a pop song that caught his attention at the time, from Cole Porter’s ‘True Love’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’. En route, we take in Lonnie Donegan at the Chiswick Empire and a host of long-forgotten golden oldies. Who but the truly initiated now remembers the Vampires, Duane Eddy or Johnny Kidd and the Pirates? Although the range of Johnson’s interests is vast, the Beatles remain the love of his musical life and they recur throughout. It says something about our hero’s priorities that his third volume of memoirs, The Long and Winding Road, devoted more pages to his brief encounter with Paul McCartney than to his entire year as home secretary.
In truth, although the book radiates the author’s easygoing charm, the formula is slightly contrived. But there are some touching vignettes, such as his saintly and much put-upon mother, Lily, getting dolled up for her weekly solo visit to the local Odeon to see Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, ‘as if the glamour on the screen demands an equivalent dress code on the part of the audience’. And we hear of Lily’s £90 win on the pools in 1957, with which she was able to afford down payments on a three-piece suite, a kitchen table and other bits and pieces most of which were repossessed when she couldn’t keep up the payments.
The two items from her winnings that weren’t repossessed were a Dansette record player and the six-string Spanish guitar she bought for young Alan. The record player enabled Alan and his sister for the first time to access the job lot of 1930s 78 rpm records they had purchased several years earlier from a stall in Portobello Road and had lovingly stored against the day when they had the means to enjoy them. As for the guitar, ‘its smell of wood and polish and varnish has stayed with me over the years, reminding me of one of the most joyous days of my life… it looked just like Lonnie’s.’
By the age of 17 Alan and four of his mates had formed their own band, performing once a week at the Pavilion pub in North Pole Road, opposite HMP Wormwood Scrubs. The going rate was £7 a night which, divided between them, came to a princely £1/8s a head. At the peak of his youthful fame he auditioned for a place in a band called the Jaywalkers, then at number 31 in the hit parade. Alas, he was unsuccessful. Who knows what might have been? But what the pop world lost, the world of politics gained.