Please, Mister Postman (Bantam, 2014) picks up where Alan Johnson‘s award winning childhood memoir, This boy, left off. Aged 18, the bid for rock and roll stardom thwarted by the theft of his band’s uninsured equipment, he’s about to get married and become a step-father and father in rapid succession. This volume of his memoirs covers the time he was employed by the Post Office, his life as a postman, his young family’s move out of London and his rise through the trade union hierarchy. It leaves us with his election to an executive position in the Union of Communications Workers, who will henceforth pay his wages, and an unspectacular divorce as he heads off to pastures new. It is a fascinating and moving portrayal of a life, and of a way of life, that feels a lot longer gone than it actually is. Yes, there once were working men, autodidacts, who became active in politics and rose to the highest positions in the land. And aren’t we suffering for the lack thereof now? To place the period in another context, this was a time when it was felt that postmen’s livelihoods would be threatened by the fax machine.
There’s a bit of a campaign on the go right now (October 2014) for Johnson to make a return to front bench politics (he’s still a Hull MP), but other than as a very welcome charmer as poster boy and TV face in the forthcoming general election campaign I can’t see it happening, because, to all reports, he looks to be having too good a time, not least with the success of these memoirs. Very early on in Please, Mister Postman he tells us, “There were, and remain, three great passions in my life – music, books and football“; in the case of the latter, as a lad from west London, it’s QPR. There was “no defining moment when I became politically active”, and, “Engaging though I found union work, I would define it as an interest, something that added another dimension to my work, not as a passion“; as “a militant moderate” it’s likely an attitude he carried over to affairs of state when the time came – a useful job, not a calling, even if, back when he started speaking at his union’s annual conference: “I liked that buzz [.…] this was as close as I could get to recreating my rock-and-roll years.” Still a teenager, he’d been writing detective stories and poetry, fruitlessly sending them off to addresses plucked from an out of date Writers & Artists Yearbook: “It seemed to me that every author I’d read about had been through the pain of rejection before achieving literary acclaim, so I saw it as a rung on the ladder to success.” And here we are. How long before a CD, even? (Please don’t).
It’s quite a story. There’s his start in married life living with the in-laws, there’s what happens to sister Linda – young orphaned Alan’s saviour from This boy – and her ultimately tragic first marriage, and there’s the settling of his growing young family on a Slough LCC overspill council estate. Then there’s his vivid memoir of the working life as a postman, leading to his South Bucks idyll on a rural ‘walk’ – working practises hard to imagine now, that he makes no attempt to excuse but has a lot of fun with – and what union and Labour Party life was like in the time of Thatcher and Militant (ie. not great – nor is the old mod who accessorised his uniform much impressed by scruffy middle class radicals). All this in an easy conversational style most of the time, laced with a fair amount of self-deprecation:
In the British Legion with Mick and Idris on a Sunday lunchtime I’d drone on about ‘my people’ and declare that I wished to put whatever talents I possessed at the service of the working class. I blush now at this patronizing nonsense but I can’t deny that the idealistic little prick in the tank top and flares was me.
He starts his Post Office career on the early shift at Barnes, following the advice and example of a fellow ex-band buddy:
Andrew cycled to work every day from his parents’ house near White City on an old sit-up-and-beg bike his dad had given him. More often than not, riding Judy’s cutting-edge Moulton, I’d meet him on Hammersmith Bridge in the insulated hush of the early morning. We’d pull our bikes off the road, light a cigarette and lean on the balustrade watching the Thames flow beneath us. It wasn’t exactly Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge, but for us it had its own profundity.
When he and Judy get the chance of a council house of their own in Slough they go on a recce. At the station they ask two policemen if they know they way to the Britwell Estate: “ ‘Do we know how to get to the Britwell?’ one of them said. ‘We should do, we have to go there often enough.’ “ But compared with the poverty and violence of the West London he was brought up in, “The Britwell seemed to me to be more Arcadian than anarchic.” He transfers to Slough Postal District, they settle in nicely with the neighbours, slowly acquire the white goods while enjoying a varied social life when he’s not racking up the overtime.
He speaks engagingly of the camaraderie of the workplace and of particular work colleagues: “My workmates in the sorting office included more lovers of literature than I’ve ever worked among since [my italics].” He’s turned on to Auden, Yeats, Larkin and the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy. “In fact Slough sorting office was like a Royal Mail university, such was the erudition of the postmen alongside whom I worked.”
So, yes, it’s good read and a healthy bestseller. But, briefly, I wish it didn’t make me wonder, yet again, what book editors actually do these days for their money and acknowledgments. There’s clumsiness and/or factual slippage and/or superfluity in some of the scene setting that the book could well do without, like (my italics):
- Sergeant Pepper was “the album that had astounded and delighted the world on its release in June.” Tell me something new.
“At home, the activist Tariq Ali was leading a student movement to abolish money and abandon capitalism.” Really?
he has a colleague whose ”great hero was the singer Al Bowlly, who had been killed in action during the war.” In enemy action, in an air raid on London; if he hadn’t eschewed the offer of accommodation in High Wycombe after a gig he would have missed it.
Linda’s new man Chas had “once sung at the famous 2i’s coffee bar in Soho, where British institutions such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard had started out.” Mention skiffle, please, and – if you must – those two, but institutions? At least he didn’t say ‘national treasures.’
Pedant? – moi? Anyway, absorbing book by a good man, who was responsible for one of the great Desert Islasnd Discs (though not necessarily for the choice of music). And – respect – he didn’t have to say this, about the aftermath of a token strike, but he does:
I was at Barnes for only five more months, and in all that time nobody spoke to Ted Philpott. For all I know his isolation lasted until his retirement. I was as guilty as my workmates of inflicting this terrible punishment. I colluded in trying to break a man’s spirit and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of ever since.
Multiple universes: a personal digression
Reading Please, Mister Postman I got this strange feeling; something slightly out of kilter was going on. It felt a bit spooked, like I was caught in a timeslip. As if the Tardis needed recalibrating. No other book has done this to me. It started when Alan Johnson was explaining the working practicalities of the Xmas post in Slough, where he had moved the very day of the original Stones’ Hyde Park gig:
Entire battalions of casuals, mostly students, were recruited throughout the country. You could hardly cross a sorting-office floor anywhere in Britain without tripping over a sociology graduate from Sheffield University …
Now, that was my university, and my subject – what are the chances of those specifics? – and I did the Christmas post twice in Slough (well, some of the time in the Farnham Royal temporary Xmas sub-sorting station). One magic night I got caught up in the romanticism of meeting the mail train at midnight … but I digress. Couple of years adrift, then. I even wrote a poem … another tangent, but wotthehell, archy, wotthehell?:
Incident in a Christmas sorting office,1967
Getting brought down
by a card post-marked
When you know
she lives in
Staying in Sheffield the while, I note Alan and Judy naming their third child Jamie, specifically J-a-m-i-e because it was “from some awful sixties comedy.” Now Here we go round the mulberry bush (1968) is not a great film, but awful it was not and I can distinctly remember walking back with my mate Neil full of the joys after seeing said film, because somehow its final flourish, with said Jamie jumping with the help of the pole onto the platform of a green double-decker bus as it drove away, captured our momentary optimism, a feeling of liberation even. (And it Judy Gysin had been in it).
“My political consciousness,” says Johnson, “evolved from the books I borrowed from Slough library and … ” some other things which are neither here nor there, here. My point is that the first library job I applied for was for a post at the old Slough Library, in 1970. I didn’t get it (in retrospect they did me a great favour) but nevertheless, we’re getting a lot closer to the timelines crossing.
I lived just outside Slough from age 12 to 18, my school was on the edge of the Britwell Estate and one of my routes cycling home was along Long Furlong Drive, where the Johnsons moved to. The Buddy Holly glasses wearing bass player and the resident musical genius (it’s all relative) in the group I played in – as the sort of Lennon figure, well rhythm guitarist – lived in Britwell and I’m pretty sure our first public performance out of school was tucked away in a corner in the Lynchpin pub – they may have let us have a brown ale – that Alan later regularly drank in. Only about 5 years out there then.
For a few years Johnson was one of Slough’s relief postmen, covering holidays and absences on the regulars’ ‘walks’, as their routes were called, which meant he almost certainly delivered letters at one time or another to all my old school mates’ parents. Six degrees of separation and all that, eh? He broke his ankle playing kickabout with his son’s friends on Burnham Beeches, not far no doubt from the accompanying photo (coat from C&A, by the way), taken maybe early ’70s, by which time, I think, he must have been delivering in the area. Early on in his political awakening he admired Jimmy Reid, specifically the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in – me too, later – and it was the Stones’ Brown sugar got him out of the kitchen and onto the dance floor at parties. I feel a connection, and – pathetically or not – feel the better for it. Cheers, Alan.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Another wonderful gig at York House. Was good to see an extended set from The mighty Antipoet away from a pub setting and hear some obscurities alongside old favourites. They were new to some of the crowd and the usual combination of dextrous double bass, generous wit, wisdom, scorn and triangle scored mightily again. They give, and they give, and they give. And then an extended in concert set from the mighty Palmerston, who performed to great acclaim. Five strong voices, fine musicianship, varied instrumentalism and top rate original material. Writing about them previously, I said they reminded me of Brinsley Schwartz, not least for the fun they were having themselves. This time around they had me thinking The Band in places – all those voices – I kid you not. And the swingingest Mavericks with Angelina. Not often I buy a CD. Now I’ve got Sun on a rainy day as an earworm I’m perfectly happy with.