I penned this on the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader. In keeping with so many former Labour luminaries, this was a result campaigned against by Alan Johnson. Despite their political differences, Johnson and Corbyn share similar histories. Born within a year of each other, neither went to university. Both were schooled in politics by the trade union movement; both are likeable, humble men, with complex personal lives who shunned earlier calls to run for leader. There the similarities end. Alan, poster boy of the Labour moderates, declined to run and, instead, turned to writing these compelling memoirs, of which This Boy is the first instalment. Corbyn, in contrast, is now leader.
Johnson’s memoir is intensely personal, highly readable and immensely heart-warming. It’s also deeply moving, profoundly shocking and utterly absorbing. While the book ends with his marriage at just 18, This Boy is first and foremost an extraordinary account of childhood.
Yet Jonhson’s family history, almost accidentally, is one of the most eloquent exposés of the inequality that Labour was created to defeat. For students of British Labour history, This Boy may rank alongside important works such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Working Class Wives, or even tracts like In Place of Fear, all of which have galvanised the fight against poverty.
This Boy is not a “misery memoir”, despite the recurring defeats and tragedies borne of in-work poverty disease and single parenthood. This is a story of constant struggle by a single mother, Lily, who literally works herself into an early grave, and of an extraordinary sister, Linda, who brings up her endearing, but sometimes naive little brother Alan. Foibles, frailties and generosity leaven the shock that even in the postwar boom of sixties Notting Hill the basic necessities could not be secured by a lifetime’s hardwork. Alan’s memoir is not set in the thirties, nor in the Gorbals; these are not feckless scroungers but rather a family struggling to make ends meet in prosperous London.
Like all great reads, you feel you are present: watching Lily’s son grow through normal youthful rites of passage. Throughout, you feel Lily’s yearning for respectability and, latterly, her hopes of hanging on until her children become adults. Yet much is left understated or unsaid, the tragedy is lightly told and without a trace of intentional melodrama. The book’s powerful subsidiary narrative belongs to young Linda as she assumes the mantle of carer and mother. This Boy is really about ‘our girl’.
This Boy is in a different class to “celebrity bios” and yet Alan’s celebrity status is not unimportant. Normal, likeable and accomplished, we all feel we ‘know’ him. These traits lend credibility and credulity. This Boy is also about post-war Britain. The heart-breaking story of Alan and his sister, aged 7 and 10, trying to cook Christmas dinner whilst their mother is hospitalised and their father off with another woman, has larger social resonances in terms of the raft of Wilsonian reforming legislation such as the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which has sometimes been derided as inappropriate “interference” in family life. Lily’s perseverance about her son’s education sees him pass his 11 plus but, ultimately, ill health, actual hunger, working hours and Alan’s love of music find him increasingly alienated from school.
Few in any party have a bad word for Alan Johnson. I knew him, although not well, in politics. He was unfailingly friendly, an instinctive ‘people person’ who never acquired the habits of grandness that can afflict those in high office. Much like Corbyn, he has cited the relentless intrusiveness of the British media when explaining his reluctance to run for leader. Yet This Boy also invites another explanation, one about the power of the early years to scar for life. Those scars from his youth, described so lightly in his memoir, clearly run deep. Perhaps these leave a man unpersuaded of his ability to lead, and in a way that Corbyn’s more sheltered upbringing did not. Whatever the case, Alan’s story should inspire us all to continue to fight poverty.