Book review: ‘This Boy’ by Alan Johnson

this boyWhile this is a very late review, hopefully it will persuade anyone left in the political community, who has not read Alan Johnson’s “This Boy”, to read it.

I tend to read at a snail’s pace and also have a habit of (accidentally) reading volumes of memoirs back to front chronologically. I read both Alan Clark’s and Chris Mullin’s volumes backwards. I read and reviewed Alan Johnson’s later work “Please Mister Postman” last summer. Just before Christmas I was kindly loaned “This Boy”.

The book is a remarkably detailed, harrowing account of a one-parent (and then no-parent) family living in 1950s/60s London in grinding, distressing poverty as the parent suffers increasingly failing health. Abandoned by her husband, Johnson’s mother, Lily, works all the hours God sends, and struggles bravely to bring up her children, Linda and Alan. Living in appalling slum conditions, they manage to survive through various trials and hardships. Linda emerges as a great confidante of her mother and a strong pseudo-parent for Alan as she grows into a young adult.

It is a miracle, or a series of miracles, that the three of them manage to rub along. Tragically, Lily dies leaving the prospect of Linda and Alan being separated and put into care. Through a mixture of guile and determination, they manage to stay together in independent, rented accommodation.

It’s a great tribute to Lily that Linda and Alan emerged as strong, responsible and well-educated adults.

The title of the book is a nod to the Lennon and McCartney song of the same name. There is much in the book of Alan Johnson’s love of music and his (sideline) career as a pop group member. (The title of his later book “Please Mister Postman” comes from a song by the Marvellettes. As Alan Johnson still has quite a lot of his life still to write about, it is interesting to speculate as to which song titles will grace his future book or books).

One can see how Alan Johnson, the union leader and politician, emerged from all this. There’s an episode where a senior colleague leaves at his work in a retailer’s warehouse. He is given more work with more responsibility but no extra pay, no new title and, crucially for Johnson, no new supervisor’s jacket. After being pushed too far he told the boss directly where he could put his job. Johnson acknowledges that this episode instilled into him a passion for justice at work.

That’s another thing about this book. There’s a lot of stuff about clothes in it. I didn’t even know what a “vent” was until I read Mr Johnson waxing lyrically about “six inch vents” on several occasions. But I suppose (at the risk of being patronising) that poverty gives you a heightened appreciation of nice clothes and Johnson notes that he was advised, by a older smart “mod”: “You may be poor, but don’t show poor”.

Alan Johnson has a warm, honest and witty writing style. Having now read two of his books, it is astonishing how he manages to present minutiae (e.g the sorting system at Barnes Post Office or the details of slum (lack of) plumbing) and make it thoroughly enthralling.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • The best leader the Labour party never had.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Jan '16 - 8:38pm

    I have read Please Mister Postman and gave a spare copy to our postman.
    There is a lot in it about the Post Office in it and his work in the union, trying to prevent strikes by detailed negotiations.
    He is crucial to persuading Labour MPs, trade unionists and Labour voters in the referendum.

  • Johnson’s description of life in 1950s London sounds more like the 1930s.

  • You don’t need to go as far back as the 1950s for such problems… In the late 1960s the shift to ‘Containerisation’ turned the areas around London’s upper docks into an industrial wasteland with massive unemployment….Like the mining industry, whole families depended on those docks and poverty and crime were the immediate result before outside ‘gentrification’….

  • Mike Falchikov 27th Jan '16 - 6:19pm

    I’ve read both books – the earlier one is a lovely, touching account of an underprivileged
    50s childhood, followed by the gradual opening up of a bigger world and bigger possibilities in the 60s. Great details about clothes, music and football and the fact that
    the only politician his mum liked was Jo Grimond. His sister Linda emerges as heroic.
    The second book is also interesting as an account of great social change. AJ is indeed the best leader Labour never had (didn’t want?) and a thoroughly nice man as I confirmed when he signed my copy at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

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