My most recent blogs have been about women, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. This week I want to share with you, my thoughts about a couple of books I read recently which are written by a man, Labour politician Alan Johnson, but which I think, are very much about the women in his life, their power, resilience and resourcefulness. His two volume memoir is very much a tribute to those women – his mother, his sister and his ex-wife.
I am an admirer of Johnson (for many the best leader the Labour party never had, very pertinent in the present circumstances!) and he was, in my view, one of the few honest, credible voices in the recent EU Referendum campaign. I read This Boy, the first volume of his memoir some time ago, and picked up Please, Mister Postman, the second volume, in my local Oxfam Bookshop earlier this year. This Boy covers Johnson’s childhood, growing up in abject poverty in derelict post-war west London, up to the age of 18, and is fascinating reading. Johnson has a warm conversational style that really draws you in. He paints a vivid picture of the hardships of his childhood and the squalor in which he and his irrepressible sister grew up.
The account is powerful without being emotional. Johnson has no self-pity, but you sense his deep resentment that his mother endured such hardship for so long and died tragically young, without having realised her, let’s be honest, very modest dream of her own front door. Whilst there is little hint here of the embryonic politician – he was more interested in music and football – there is a clear path from the deprived, urban upbringing, with its straitened circumstances and injustices, to the left-leaning politician he would become.
What comes through most strongly in the book is Johnson’s love and respect for the two women who dominated his early life. First, his mother, Lily, a humble woman neglected and then abandoned by her feckless husband (Johnson barely conceals his contempt for the man who was his father) and left to provide for two young children in London, hundreds of miles from her native Liverpool. Like many women of her generation, Lily’s ambitions were modest; simply getting through the daily travails of life took all her energy and willpower. Feminism will have meant very little to her despite the fact that she probably did more to demonstrate the resourcefulness and strength of the female than many of her modern counterparts. Lily’s poor health eventually got the better of her and she died prematurely, leaving her two teenage children tragically early. Second, Johnson’s phenomenally resourceful sister Linda, a tower of moral and emotional strength to the family. Linda is a remarkable presence and Johnson’s love and admiration for her shine through.
Despite all the deprivations of his childhood, Johnson was a ‘grammar school boy’ – he passed the 11+, as did Linda. This system, so lauded by many who protest that it enabled them to get a good education and compete with those emerging from the privileged classes and the public schools, is not presented either romantically or nostalgically by Johnson. You sense he saw its inbuilt inequalities very early on. Johnson was clearly not very interested in school, and school does not appear to have been very interested in him! The system was, without a doubt, far from egalitarian – Alan did paid work as a child to help support the family and material necessities took priority over study. The teaching staff at Sloan Grammar School, with a few notable exceptions, come across as generally uninterested in the welfare of their charges and sometimes cruel. (You sense that they were men – almost all men! – very conscious that they themselves were under-achieving, teaching a cross-section of society in state grammar rather than a more elite social group in a prestigious public school!) Johnson did not have access to books, materials, even a quiet space at home necessary to study. Poor health, connected to the poverty and squalor in which he lived, a poorly-heated home and under-nourishment were the disadvantages that he had to overcome. No level-playing field here.
Please, Mister Postman starts where This Boy leaves off. At the start of the second volume, Johnson, aged 18, is newly married, to Judy, who also has a young daughter, and they set up home on one of the hastily-constructed post-war housing estates in Slough. The first half of the book covers their early life together, and the arrival of two more children. Johnson also writes in detail about the working-class community in which they lived, and there is a powerful sense of regret that somehow this common purpose and spirit has been lost in so many of our council estates.
Johnson worked as a postman and we learn how he worked his way up through the grades, about the culture of the organisation, and about his co-workers. About halfway through the book, Johnson is elected as a full-time union official and thereafter we see the pathway to his becoming a Labour politician.
I enjoyed This Boy much more than Please, Mister Postman; I think he was right to split the two phases of his life story as This Boy stands alone as a powerful reminder of a life that very few of us will ever experience – complete poverty and shocking inequality in a broken society just emerging from the horror of a protracted war. It wasn’t that long ago.
Please, Mister Postman is a very different book. There are some powerful and raw emotions here, particularly in the second half (don’t want to give away any spoilers!) Johnson tells us more about his remarkable sister, which is fascinating, and I enjoyed reading about his perspectives on political events of the 1970s and ‘80s. However, I found the book overly-descriptive in parts and I felt there was more detail on post office culture, events and people, than I really needed. I think some judicious editing might have made it more powerful. That said, I think, in the detailed descriptions of his workmates, he is in fact paying tribute to people who were intelligent and cultured, but who were never able to achieve their true potential because of the class system in Britain at the time.
Johnson also gives us some prophetic hints about the fault lines under the Labour party when he highlights the contrasts between the middle-class ‘lefties’ in the party and the core working-class people they are seeking to liberate.
If you are an admirer of Alan Johnson, or interested in left-wing politics you will find both volumes interesting. If you like a good story, then I’d definitely recommend This Boy.