This Boy is no ordinary politician’s memoir, still less a politician’s ordinary memoir. It ends where others might begin: when the author is barely 18, newly married and only just starting work as a postman. The trade unionism that he later took up and the career in politics that led to several cabinet posts in two Labour governments are not even hinted at. Yet however thrilling, their story, when it is told, will be dull by comparison with this. Alan Johnson had a childhood quite unlike most politicians’, and he describes it with a simplicity and power that make it easy to see why he came to be the potential Labour leader most feared by many Conservatives.
Johnson was the son of Lily, a small, bright, Liverpudlian mother, plagued by ill health and overwork, and Steve, a musically gifted, drunk and violent father. They lived in North Kensington, a part of London now infested by millionaires, but then — Johnson was born in 1950 — peopled by the poorest of the poor. Many of the houses, including the Johnsons’, had been condemned in the 1930s.
Typically, one or more families would have a floor of a house, cooking on a landing and sharing a single lavatory in the back yard. Heating in the Johnson household came from coal picked up in the streets behind the carts that made deliveries to the big houses in Holland Park. Gas provided the light, if a shilling could be found for the meter; if not, candles were lit. There was no electricity.
Poverty defined the lives of most people in these streets. For the Johnsons, debt was ever present. So were second-hand clothes, fly-filled rooms and hunger. The staple diet was bread and dripping. When money was unusually short it was stale bread floating in an infusion of Oxo in water. At the age of ten, Alan had only three books, which he read and re-read: Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer and a Boy’s Own annual. In 1963, at the age of 13, he had been in a car no more than two or three times.
Johnson, however, is not the hero of this book. The stars are, first, his mother Lily and then, shining even more brightly, his sister Linda. Beaten and berated by her husband for the first few years of Alan’s life, Lily struggles to bring up the children on her own. While she works as a charlady, he lies in bed (not always alone) or plays the piano in pubs and clubs, his ‘Brylcreemed red hair combed tight to his scalp like finely raked soil’. Then he pushes off. Constantly in and out of hospital, Lily is terrified that she, like her mother and grandmother, will die at 42. She does.
And so the children are alone. Alan is 13, Linda 16. Linda, old beyond her years, had already moved into her mother’s bed to ease Lily’s anxiety and mute her night-time sobbing. She had taken jobs in shops — her first at the age of 12 — to pay off the household debts. She had remonstrated with her father, once even attacking him, in defence of her mother. She had cooked the 1957 Christmas dinner (a chicken disastrously roasted in its plastic wrapping), when her mother was in hospital and she and Alan had been abandoned for two days by their father.
Now she takes charge, organising the funeral, fending off relations’ well-intentioned offers of a move to Liverpool and repelling ‘the authorities’, who want to send her to Dr Barnardo’s and Alan to live with foster parents. She even succeeds in procuring a flat in Hammersmith.
Crime is a recurring problem. Alan is first robbed as a six-year-old on his way home from school. He is still having his belongings, notably his beloved guitar, stolen when the book ends. In between, he is seized by a madman and harassed by neighbours who believe that he and Linda have jumped the housing queue. Lily has witnessed the provocation that led to the murder of Kelso Cochrane, a black immigrant, innocently walking home one night in May 1959. She probably recognised the murderer, but she dares not speak up. Everyone is afraid. As Oswald Mosley stirs racial resentments in the streets, Peter Rachman drives tenants from their rent-controlled lodgings and fills them with desperate West Indians.
But not everyone is odious. The cast of characters includes the decent and the kind: the grocer who gives credit and even food; the neighbour who provides the children with their first taste of turkey on Christmas day in 1963; the journalist who employed Lily and tracks down her feckless husband; the friend’s parents who have Alan to stay when his mother dies; and, most exciting of all, the charity for slum children that sends Alan to Denmark for ten days’ holiday in 1962, an ‘idyll’ that matched the events he had only read about in Enid Blyton stories. Such acts of kindness help to make life bearable.
It was not much more than that: this is, in essence, a story of endurance and survival, at least for Alan and Linda. That is not to belittle the astonishing courage of Lily, determined to bring up her children to be educated, honest and polite, nor the extraordinary determination of Linda, who in a reversal of roles became, in effect, a mother to both her mother and her brother.
And Alan? Alan, though shy and sensitive, plainly had the temperament to survive. He had no self-pity and, it seems, no fierce ambition. Reading, football and music allowed him to escape his immediate circumstances. Yet he must have had inner strengths that he is too modest to reveal. Yes, this wonderful book is written by a self-effacing politician — and, even more remarkable, he’s called Johnson.