The former Home Secretary's new memoir chronicles the changing patterns of working-class lifeby DJ Taylor / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
Please, Mr Postman by Alan Johnson (Bantam Press £16.99)
In strict category terms, This Boy, the first volume of memoirs by the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, is what used to be known in the trade as a “Labour autobiography”—a once abundant genre, now rather more restricted in its scope. Like the Labour Party itself, the Labour autobiography started making its presence felt something under a century ago.
Though written by all sorts and conditions of men—Red Clydesiders superannuated from the backbenches, trades unionists elevated to the House of Lords, middle-class intellectuals bent on revising the party constitution—such books were generally united by their reliance on the symbolic moment. The author might have ended up in parliament by way of Grimepit Colliery Secondary School and the National Union of Mineworkers, or Winchester College and guilt-appeasing mission-work in the East End slums, but invariably there would come a chapter in which our hero was blacklisted by his former employer, browsed his way through Das Kapital, or, in the case of the middle-class intellectual, got to grips with the Oxford Philosophy, Politics and Economics course, and divined that here was the crucible in which his beliefs were being forged.
The distinguishing mark of Johnson’s account of his formative years in the back-streets of old ungentrified Notting Hill was how little it conformed to this elemental pattern. Even more than Tony Blair’s apologia pro vita sua, it was an almost wholly apolitical work, devoid of point-scoring, figurative interludes and those asides in which the circumstances of the struggle are discreetly set against an appreciation of that struggle’s rewards. Johnson might have used the memory of his teenage sacking from a branch of Tesco to observe that “not only should the voices of workers be heard but they needed some protection against exploitation” but that was about as far as his political awareness went.
What we got instead was an unvarnished and absolutely un-self-pitying description of an early life lived out in conditions of extreme poverty and familial crack-up (absconding father, ailing mother) with only the resourcefulness of his elder sister, Linda, to…