Book Review from the July 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson. Bantham Press, 2013.
When former Home Secretary Alan Johnson told Prime Minister Tony Blair that he was married with three children before he was twenty years old, Blair replied ‘You really are working class’. Alan Johnson is one of those rare things, a member of the proletariat who climbed the greasy pole to reach high political office.
This Boy tells of his childhood in the 1950s and 60s, growing up in North Kensington in London W10 in ‘a street whose buildings had been condemned in the 1930s’. The Johnson family were abandoned by their father, and their lives were filled with a ‘grinding poverty’ which comprised second hand clothes from ‘the Lane’ (Petticoat Lane market), debts, outside lavatories, no television or labour-saving devices, buying groceries ‘on the tick’, hiding from the ‘tally man’, and free school meals. In 1959 Macmillan said the working class had ‘never had it so good’.
1950s North Kensington was captured in the photographs of Roger Mayne who portrayed the ‘squalor and vibrancy of life there’ and also the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies who would be exploited by Rachman landlordism. Johnson recalls the ‘Teddy Boy’ riots in Notting Hill, the unsolved murder (Johnson says he knows the culprit) of West Indian Kelso Cochrane in 1959, and Oswald Mosley as Fascist candidate for North Kensington at the 1959 General Election.
Johnson’s book features a portrait of his mother who died when he was thirteen. She was a Liverpudlian who admired Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Liberal leader Jo Grimond, disliked Churchill, and worked as a ‘charlady in the posh houses of South Kensington’. His mother and elder sister kept the family going in a period of the Welfare State when benefit entitlements were administered through the head of a family (ie. the man).
Johnson describes his passion for Queens Park Rangers who had a golden era in the 1960s which culminated in winning the football League Cup in 1967. Music was a passion from the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan to the Beatles and Stones and discovering Chicago blues. Johnson details the influential books and authors in his life which included Shane by Jack Schaefer, Mark Twain, HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Johnson passed his 11-plus and went to grammar school in Chelsea but left school at 15 eventually becoming a postman. He joined the Labour Party in 1971 although he considered himself a ‘Marxist in the CPGB style’. He also joined his trade union becoming the CWU General Secretary in 1992. He was the only senior trade unionist to support the New Labour abolition of Clause IV, and a safe parliamentary seat was found for him in 1997. He held various cabinet posts under Blair and then Brown. As Education Minister he introduced differential university tuition fees, and as Home Secretary he sacked Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs who had accused the government of ‘distorting’ and ‘devaluing’ research evidence in the debates about Ecstasy and cannabis.