Ronnie McGowan was lucky enough to chat to Alan Johnson before an event in Blairgowrie recently. Here he gives his impression of the man many see as a true working class hero, through the medium of his trilogy of memoirs.
Alan Johnson’s eyes light up at the mention of Charlie Buchan’s Football Monthly, the definitive schoolboys’ magazine from the 50s and 60s. It was a common point of reference from a football crazy boyhood as we enjoyed a few moments in the soft glow of an autumn afternoon in Perthshire, shortly before the former Home Secretary appeared on stage to talk about his memoirs.
For those who don’t know, Alan Johnson is a modern-day version of the working class hero, who has a deep passion for football, music and books.
Political diaries and great tomes of retrospective justification come and go, gather dust, or become distant reminders of who stabbed who around the cabinet table. Yawn. But Johnson’s trilogy comes embossed with the evocative titles of This Boy, Please, Mr Postman and The Long and Winding Road. If you don’t get the references you haven’t lived. These books are gold standard.
His story begins in the rubble of a west London trying to recover from the devastation of World War II; life at home was chaotic and hungry. Johnson succeeds in describing intimately the challenges and set-backs of growing up in this tough environment. Helping him navigate the craters of life were two women: his older, sensible, stoical sister Linda, and his hard working mother Lily, chronically ill, who died when she was forty two years old. Alan was barely out of short trousers.
A feckless father who had already deserted the family gave no comfort to his two children in their desperate times of need. After Lily’s death, Linda took control of Alan and everything else. At the age of sixteen she obtained a council house. Linda stood her ground when faced with council officialdom and the teenagers set up home in Battersea. Such an allocation would be inconceivable today.
Growing up rapidly was a feature of those baby-boomers and, although life was undoubtedly hard for the teenage siblings, a social revolution was just round the corner in the shape of four young lads from Liverpool. Attending an audition for a band called the Jaywalkers, Alan had mastered a tricky chord change for his performing piece, This Boy, but his attempt at stepping on the first rung to rock stardom ended there. It wouldn’t have been on account of his dress sense though; he was meticulous about his sartorial image. When working as a postman he stitched a crease along the full length of his uniform trousers. The boy from North Kensington was your ultimate self-respecting Mod.
Although gaining entry to grammar school Alan left at fifteen with no qualifications. Undeterred he took on a series of jobs before joining the Post Office which would set him on that long and winding road to the Home Office. His rise through the trade union ranks to national prominence was one I had observed over a number of years, and reading of his admiration for Tom Jackson, the union’s General Secretary, reminded me of that 1971 national postal workers strike under the Heath government. It was a protracted dispute and it was clear the grass-roots postmen were supportive of Jackson, who sported a distinctive handle-bar moustache every bit as recognisable as Harold Wilson’s pipe and Gannex raincoat.
“Going through the union was my education”, Alan said, a perspective with historical legitimacy in the Labour party and one with which I could fully empathise. Around the time of the 1971 postal strike I was attending AEUW branch meetings and it was suggested I take on a more responsible role during those meetings. After contemplating this window of opportunity I opted for the life of an engineering student, but today the trade union movement still offers a path to power for those with ambitions to make a positive difference in the everyday lives of workers. Alan Johnson was a successful trade union leader with impeccable grass-roots credentials; reason enough to be head-hunted by Tony Blair to stand for parliament.
The journey from union leader to cabinet minister is presented with a compelling logic, and his pragmatic approach to politics helped resolve a long running dispute involving fishermen in his constituency of Hull. Johnson acknowledges that being in government is different, but he doesn’t come across as someone who deserted his background or upbringing. Gaining access to the levers of power offered the scope to intervene more effectively when necessary, like in the case of the Hull fishermen.
He is also is on record as rejecting any idea of going into the House of Lords or accepting a knighthood. ‘Red Tory’ has never been part of his lexicon. In this career path an interesting dichotomy was recently exposed by Dennis Skinner in the documentary, Nature of the Beast, a film about Skinner. On arriving at Westminster the MP for Bolsover set himself three working conditions: not to pair with a Tory; never to drink in the bars in the Palace of Westminster [it’s a strange sort of workplace that allows the sale of alcohol on its premises]; and not to go on cross-party trips abroad. Skinner has never held a cabinet position. But it is a thought provoking comparison between the two; who has been best placed to effect improvements in the opportunities for working people, the career back-bencher or the government minister?
The rapid transformation of post-war Europe undoubtedly fashioned Johnson’s views on the European Union and, as the spearhead of Labour’s campaign, he was disappointed with the referendum result. “The Labour vote should have been seventy four percent [it was sixty five percent], and Cameron couldn’t even secure fifty percent from his party”. A tragedy yet to fully unfold.
Overall the three books give a fascinating insight into what it is to achieve, from humble beginnings, command of a great office of state. And there is an amusing encounter with Sir Paul McCartney.
Occasionally the memoirs are a painful read but more often they are funny, very funny indeed. There is also a heartfelt poignancy threading throughout the books, undiminished by the passage of time.
On his mother’s birthday, the young Alan would run up Portobello Road to buy cheap crockery as a present – it might be a cup or a saucer in the blue-and-white hooped range which matched the colours of his beloved Queens Park Rangers – with the intention that she would eventually have a full set. But by the time of Lily’s death there were just two cups and two saucers. The feeling of premature loss leaps from the page and it lingers: who wouldn’t want to reach out to reassure a parent that, “everything will be all right, Lily, all right for all of us”.
Read through these memoirs once and delight in the honesty, and warmth of Johnson. Then a second reading will guide you towards further treasures to dip into. I went back to my Beatles collection. If there really is ‘a way to get back homewards’, Alan Johnson’s books will take you there.