Can it really be six years since Alan Johnson was on Desert Island Discs. Well, yes: almost to the day. Some Desert Island Discs appearances stick in the mind and his was certainly one of those. You can listen to it right now via the wonderful Desert Island Discs archive.* Here, then, was the then Secretary of State for Health in a Labour government modestly and good humouredly engaging listeners with a genuine poor boy succeeding against the odds tale (thanks, as he acknowledged, to two remarkable women), in the context of which life music had played – with his youthful beat group ambitions – and still played – as active listener, with a son working in the music industry – a meaningful part. At one stage he actually quotes unbidden a Super Furry Animals lyric – “She came in smelling of cabbages / pumpkin roots and all winter’s ravages” – from their song Cityscape Skybaby. A friend sent him a brief email saying he’d enjoyed the show but had never heard of the Super Furry Animals, so could he recommend a CD to start with; he got back an enthusiastic and much more detailed than he’d expected intro to the band’s recorded output. Clearly a good bloke, and no ordinary politician.
So I was looking forward to Alan Johnson‘s This boy: a memoir of a childhood (Bantam, 2013). It’s an absorbing story and one which seems – regrettably – almost unthinkable these days. It takes us as far as him getting a job with the Post Office, which is where, with involvement in the union, his political career began:
At eighteen years of age I was about to move house for the seventh time. I’d left school, had four jobs, been in two bands and fallen for the woman I was about to marry, in the process becoming a father as well as a husband.
Born 1950, he grows up in poverty, in the slums of West London on the borders of Rachman’s growing empire. Lily, his mum, has a heart condition which keeps her in and out of hospital; she’s working when she shouldn’t be because his dad’s a lazy bastard who abandons them one Christmas Eve. The remarkable Linda, his elder sister, to whom the book is dedicated, pretty much runs the show even before Lily dies when Linda is 16. Linda successfully battles with officialdom to keep her brother out of care. The travails of the marriage had been kept from Alan so for a lot of this he’s relying on what his sister has told him, which takes some of the power of personal testimony away but it’s still a gripping story of dedication and simply keeping going.
Both Linda and Alan had passed the 11-plus exam and gone on to grammar schools but both left before taking O levels to put money on the table. Alan didn’t have much fun in school anyway, where Malcolm MacDonald and Steve Hackett were contemporaries. Music, football (QPR) and reading were what kept him going. He’s particularly fond of the old red and yellow Pye International rhythm and blues singles, though Paul McCartney is the Beatle he identifies with, even if his chosen book title, This boy, is a Lennon song. Musical progress is hindered by the theft of their instruments. There is much about the local area – “Notting Hill was beginning its biggest phase of demolition since it suffered the unwanted attention of the Luftwaffe during the war” – and plenty of period detail. But as that quote suggests, there’s a certain clumsiness in the prose – who is he writing for? – that grates, with echoes of the self-published memoirs that we used to get offered when I was working in the library. So, in May 1963, in the twilight of his career, the great Stanley Matthews is playing, at the age of 48, for Stoke against Chelsea:
I went alone, Unfortunately another 66,198 people went as well, and I was very lucky indeed not to have been crushed to death. Incredibly, in spite of periodic tragedies at soccer stadia in Britain and around the world, the potential perils of having vast numbers of supporters crammed into football grounds were not addressed in any significant way until the terrible Hillsborough disaster of 1989 led belatedly to the introduction of proper safety measures and all-seater stadia.
You have to ask how necessary it was for us to be given that perspective on the event. And then we’re back to the more interesting details – the experience – of just how much of the great man he actually managed to see.
Despite these reservations I’m glad to have read Alan Johnson‘s book. He’s a good man, his sister a real heroine. It’s a stirring tale and it’s a sad thought that he may be the last of a certain breed of politician – those who had proper jobs before embarking (or even finding themselves embarked, as he relates on Desert Island Discs) on a career in politics. We could do with a few more.
I’ve written about the brilliant Andrëi Makine‘s The life of an unknown man (2011) before but I think it’s worth recording that my book group also greeted it rapturously last month. Reading it again I was struck by how impressive the opening section – the émigré writer Shutor’s exit from France and his disillusion with the publishing and literary scene there – was this time around, when on first reading it had seemed bitty and something to be got through before the ‘real’ story gets into gear when he’s back in a ‘new’ Russia that he tries hard – and fails – to be a part of.
Certain quotes rang out this time around that encapsulate what Makine does so well. In speaking of Russia in the twentieth century: “the richness of that wretched past.” In creating in his writing the glimpses of love and care amongst the bigger (and usually awful) picture: “the fragile tenacity of such moments.”
A work of huge emotional power, the book works like a symphony, like a piece of music both literally – there are sung tunes that reappear at crucial moments – and in the way certain themes of love lost and the hope of its regaining weave in and out of the narrative. Then there’s the haunting image, during the Siege of Leningrad, when a musician has to burn his scores to keep warm: “As the sheets blazed, ripples of music and singing went up in smoke.” It’s great book.
*No mention of Desert Island Discs on Lillabullero is complete without reference to The Box Ticked‘s splendid little ditty that goes under the name of Daydreaming. With its opening verse “I’m daydreaming daily / about Desert Island Discs / I’m having second thought about / the records I pick” and the killer line “My book is The sirens of Titan” (Kurt Vonnegut‘s wondrous science fiction masterpiece) not to mention a glorious chorus to which resistance is futile. See and hear it live here right now.