Alan Johnson: The boy from the back streets
PUBLISHED: 10:58 27 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:50 27 September 2013
Katie Jarvis meets Alan Johnson MP ahead of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, where he’ll talk about growing up in poverty and the wonderful mother who made him a champion of women.
It’s pretty daunting, visiting the office of the Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP. I’ve just jostled a million colourful tourists – taking photographs, eating ice cream, bustling, buying, baying – to crane my neck up at lanky Big Ben and gaze on the Houses of Parliament round the corner. And now I’m sitting on a low stone wall outside 1, Parliament Street, waiting to pass through the imposing arched door, behind which lurk security guards and red-flashing scanners. As I sit there, nervously glancing at my watch, an old black-and-white photograph drifts into my mind’s eye: it’s of a young, neat, dark-haired girl, whose intense gaze slightly past the camera indicates both anxiety and determination. I know that she’s a teenager; I know she’s working at the Liverpool Co-op. (The caption told me so.) And I sense she’d be equally daunted – probably terrified – to be waiting outside this stern, important-looking building.
But, as she poses, ambered in time, I know things she doesn’t. I know that, already, the rheumatic fever she contracted as a child has fatally damaged her heart. I know that, soon, she will be swept off her feet by Steve, who will prove unfaithful and feckless. I know she will heroically struggle to bring up her two children in hovels – condemned, overcrowded; decorated with jaunty black-mould stripes in winter and spotted fly swarms in summer – feeding them with free school meals when she can; or (more often than not) with stale bread floating in Oxo.
And I know that she will die, aged 42, weary from life’s struggles, the same age as died her mother and grandmother before her.
No wonder she’d be daunted by 1, Parliament Street.
And yet. The other thing I know is this: she, of all people can lay claim to this building. Poor, under-educated (her hard-won scholarship denied her because she couldn’t get the school uniform), her ‘professional’ life spent as a cleaner in the Big Houses – yes, yes; all true. But take note of this: Lily Johnson – that shy teenager in the Co-op snap – was to give birth to a future Home Secretary.
“Alan is really excited about this,” says his assistant, Catherine, as she collects me – newly scanned and ID-ed – from reception.
For a fleeting second, I think she’s talking about my interview.
“Being a guest director of Cheltenham Literature Festival,” she clarifies, kindly, while I try to look as though I instantly realised that Alan Johnson has – in all probability – been interviewed before.
Nonetheless, it’s endearing that a man who’s been there, done it, and bought the paperback, should be pleased as punch to be involved in Cheltenham’s revered bookfest. “I never knew about this world of literary festivals but it’s an amazing world,” Alan Johnson himself confirms, as he warmly shakes my hand and leads me over to the sitting-room area of his vast (to me), panoramically-view-offering office.
“My colleague Chris Mullin, who’s done these diaries that have been very successful, was talking in an interview recently about how some people say the days of the public meeting have disappeared: a load of people gathered together, having a dialogue. And Chris said: ‘They haven’t! They’re alive and well at literary festivals.’ That’s been my experience as well. I’ve done quite a few now but Cheltenham’s, I understand, is the par excellence.”
Does he know Cheltenham – the town – well?
“Not very well. I went there as Home Secretary to go to GCHQ. And I went there a couple of times on political visits, so I guess three or four times.” He pauses, determined to do better. “Actually, I went as a minister - down to that docks area that was being redeveloped.”
Ah. The Gloucester bit of Cheltenham.
“Oh!” he laughs. “That was Gloucester. Leave that out!”
As this year’s programme demonstrates, there are any number of reasons why you might want to ask Alan Johnson to appear. He’s doing no fewer than four star turns: talking with David Davis, Andrew Neil and Polly Toynbee about privilege and fairness; debating the role of the Civil Service with Francis Maude and Gus O’Donnell; even discussing his musical heroes, the Beatles, and their impact on society. (I’ll come back to some of these later.) But the overriding reason why he’s here in Cheltenham is his memoir, This Boy, published earlier this year.
He has a story to tell – boy, does he have a story to tell – but (as they say), it’s the way that he tells it. Succinct; lyrical. Heroic; ignoble. Incredible; realistic. Extraordinary; blunt. It is brilliantly written. Moreover, it’s interesting that only after his turns in grand office do we properly learn that he was brought up in abject poverty amid London slums by a struggling (but wonderful) mother and a largely-absent father.
“I was always very reluctant to talk about my past when I was in government because I felt it could be seen as trying to garner some sympathy,” he says. “I didn’t want to be Orphan Alan - all of that kind of stuff – and I wanted to be judged on my abilities as a minister, so I didn’t say too much about it.”
What’s so captivating is precisely that - that he doesn’t play to the gallery. He tells his story with a straightness that means the awfulness becomes ordinary. “…We considered Nanny Johnson’s flat, at Peabody Buildings, Delgano Gardens, to be the height of luxury… There were no flies or bugs and it didn’t smell of decay and dirt and damp.” “Getting up to pee in the bucket in the middle of a frosty night was no fun, but it was infinitely preferable to having to go out into the back yard to use the toilet, which often seized up when the water in the cistern froze.” Or, on reading Famous Five books, “I would lie on my bed covered in coats, cold and hungry, drooling over the sausages, pies and cakes and lemonade scoffed by the children of Blyton-land.”
Don’t get the impression this is a misery memoir. It isn’t. Yet it is hard to categorise, filled, as it is, with vignettes that would seem humourous – farcical; such as Linda, Alan’s sister, discovering their dad in bed with Auntie Elsie… Humorous, were it not for the fact that we also hear the racking sobs of Lily, Alan’s mother, through the long, lonely nights.
Ah, yes. Lily. The girl from the Co-op.
“I was very clear about the book I wanted to write, which was to make my mother live again,” Alan says. “She died very young. There’s not any memorial to my mother – no gravestone; nothing. There was a little bush that we planted where her ashes were scattered in Kensal Rise cemetery but we hadn’t realised you had to keep paying every five years to keep it there; so they took it away, along with the little plaque.”
You can see why Alan Johnson has been such a champion of women – in politics, and in life. His mum, constantly suffering with her health, copes without child maintenance or any real hand-outs, taking on cleaning jobs in the day; craft jobs-at-home in the evening. One Christmas, when she’s rushed into hospital, Steve disappears off with a lady-friend, leaving seven-year-old Alan and Linda, 10, alone for three days. Linda cooks the Christmas chicken for the two of them, not knowing the plastic wrapping should be removed first. When Lily dies, six years later, it’s Linda who fights social services, determined she and Alan should stay together in a flat provided by the council. Inevitably, she wins.
“When Lynn Barber reviewed it in the Sunday Times, she said, ‘Never mind about Alan Johnson; Linda should have been Prime Minister’,” he smiles, clearly delighted with the idea.
What would his mum think of today’s welfare system?
“I hope she would have thought it important – people do need it. We got free school meals, for instance. That wouldn’t have happened without the welfare state that was set up post-Second World War. She would have been very dismissive of the kind of rhetoric we sometimes hear now of skivers-versus-strivers [he says, at first, ‘Scoundrels-versus-skivers’ but it’s clearly an alliterative, not Freudian, slip]. She worked herself into an early grave. She wasn’t getting support because she wasn’t working. She was getting it because she was working but was earning a pittance.”
There’s one particular story that stands out in my mind – a tragi-comic moment where Lily meets a new man: Ron, a comfortably-off builder from Romford, who invites them all round for Christmas. He’s bought a magnificent goose for the feast, and disappears off to the pub, leaving Lily and Linda to cook it. In a moment of dramatic irony worthy of Jean Cocteau, we know enough by now to realise cooking isn’t their forte. To be fair, it still comes as something of a surprise when they actually manage to set the bird on fire.
It is a marvellous story; but it demonstrates a truism. If you haven’t been taught how to do something – if your education isn’t up to scratch – then, sometimes, no amount of trying will make you succeed.
What will he tell his Cheltenham audience about poverty and opportunity?
“The problem is we live in probably one of the most rigid class-systems in the world. In this country, there’s no-one coming down from one social class to a lower one. It’s almost a case – unconsciously – that people who are born into privilege make sure they maintain that privilege, whether through a separate education system; whether through a network of contacts. It is a real blot on our society that, whether it’s high court judges or senior army officers, they come from a certain very, very elite background. You don’t get that in many other countries – certainly not America; certainly not most European countries.
“My very good friend, David Davis, is doing this [Cheltenham event] with me. He was adopted; doesn’t know who his father was; lived on a council estate. We’ll come to completely different conclusions, I guess; but I don’t see how you can duck this issue of the Establishment. And many on the Right – Mrs Thatcher was one of them – feel that this Old Boys’ Network (as she would describe it) has to be attacked and challenged and changed. I have different views from the way she would have done that but that is still the biggest problem.”
Indeed. But how counter-intuitive, I suggest, that – on the whole - his own views and ways of achieving things are so balanced and centrist. After reading about his background, wouldn’t I be logical in expecting him to be more extreme?
“It’s funny. I get two kinds of arguments. Some say – and there’s no hostility in it – ’You passed the 11-plus and that was your route out. You should have ended up as a Conservative!’
“Then, on the other side, I should be much more extreme. But what I point out is that people who went through abject poverty were those who were grounded in reality. Ernest Bevin, who’s one of my heroes,” (he points to a biography on the coffee table in front of me) “was the eighth illegitimate son of a Somerset farmworker. Left school at 12, illiterate; rose to become a great Foreign Secretary; was never an extremist.
“People from my kind of background see no romance in poverty at all. If you’re going to do something about it, then you do it through a parliamentary democracy. In fact, if you were going to make a class issue of it, you would find more middle-class people who were extreme in their views, not people who had actually lived through it.”
We talk about his other heroes – the Beatles. (This Boy is such a great track.) And you can understand why they’re heroes. Here was a group of lads who rose on merit alone; and who didn’t pretend to fit into the middle-class ranks they were invading.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they changed the world: being from a very working-class background but able to produce this wonderful music. It made people think differently about society.
“When they went to America, they didn’t even put on what they felt would be an American’s view of a rock star. They were completely different to Presley and these people who were turned into, by their management, Hollywood superstars.
“The Beatles did something really important in insisting on good value for money for their fans. So, for instance, the Magical Mystery Tour was a double EP, six tracks, I think, on it: they insisted it was sold for under £1 because they didn’t want their fans to pay more than that.”
Equality; fairness; opportunity. Alan Johnson: the PM we never had. Will he at least be rejoining the Labour front bench?
“I’ve got no desire to go back,” he says. Instead, he talks about serving Hull as its MP, and about the joy he’s found in becoming a writer. But no more battles from the political frontline.
“It’s a bit like a footballer who plays for their local team, who gets called up for the international side; but, after a while, like Rio Ferdinand, they say: ‘Sorry; I’ve done enough international duty! Now I’m going to concentrate on the club’. In a way, that’s what I’m doing: I’m concentrating on Hull.”
As anyone who’s read This Boy would know, there’s nothing trite about saying: Whatever he does next, Lily – that shy girl in the photo - would be so proud.
This Boy, a memoir of childhood by Alan Johnson, is published by Transworld, hardback £16.99. For full details of Cheltenham Literature Festival, visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature