2 April 2014
THIS BOY by Alan Johnson
I don’t read biographies these days. When I was in my teens and early twenties and seeking inspiration as to my future, I read them a lot. I seem to recall I focused on politicians – Disraeli, Baldwin, MacMillan and anything to do with Churchill. I even went as far back as the 17th century and a copy of Antonia Fraser’s ‘Cromwell’ still adorns my bookcase. Nowadays my taste is for literary fiction, primarily as a result of my need to keep abreast of trends in modern writing, and I have neglected alternate forms. I have clearly been missing something as latter-day politician Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir, THIS BOY, is a real treat and I’m glad I was persuaded to read it.
Although in fact I didn’t need much persuading. Had I not already been stewarding at his York Literature Festival event the other Saturday, it’s highly likely I would have attended anyway. As far as modern politicians go, Alan Johnson has always struck me as a decent sort and I wanted to hear what he had to say. In the event I felt inspired to buy his book and that’s not something I do lightly. His interviewer that evening was none other than our own Elly Fiorentini and when I bumped into her afterwards, she let it be known that she had been inspired too and so we naturally agreed that we should make THIS BOY a subject for our next discussion on Book Talk.
So what was it then that made us both so keen? Elly will no doubt speak for herself but for me the book struck a number of personal chords. Alan Johnson and I are both of the same era – born in the same year even – and his account of growing up in the 50s and 60s brings back many memories. I too remember the joy brought into our house by the magic of radio, The Light Programme and listening to such Sunday lunchtime classics as Family Favourites, The Navy Lark and Round The Horne. He tells of a time when he took his radio to bed and snuggled down with it under the blankets. I did exactly the same although my purpose was to hear the late-night boxing commentaries of Eamonn Andrews (with inter-round summaries by J. Barrington Dalby) and to experience the excitement afforded by the battles of Liston, Clay and Cooper. And then of course there was always the music and the advent of pop.
A less enjoyable aspect of life in those days was of course the poverty. Although I could never claim to have endured what Johnson did (some parts of his book are quite harrowing) I was also abandoned by my father at an early age and spent four years of my childhood growing up in a caravan with the same lack of basic facilities. No wonder his book rang bells. Luckily my mother survived, whereas Johnson’s did not, and THIS BOY is as much a tribute to the heroism of Lily, and sister Linda, as it is a social history of the times. Any one who watches CALL THE MIDWIFE will have caught the flavour of what is being portrayed although one suspects the show itself has been somewhat sanitized for the purposes of TV.
The danger in all this is that such recollections can lapse into unnecessary sentimentality. Johnson skillfully avoids this and although he is brutally truthful and tells his tale with candour, he does it with a lightness of touch which is quite refreshing. It is in fact a masterpiece of British understatement and it’s the character displayed by his mother and his sister that shines through rather than any form of grandiloquent prose. There’s a lesson to be learnt here for any aspiring novelist – moving stories can be told in the simplest of language.
As to the youthful Alan Johnson’s future, this book gives barely a hint of it - in fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the author was to become a famous pop star rather than a potential Prime Minister. I suspect that many of today’s politicians might have taken the opportunity given by such a past to justify their current political stance but where it would have been easy to do so, Johnson avoids this too. The result is a truly insightful and unbiased history of what childhood was like in the mean streets of 1950s London. As I said at the beginning, whatever his politics, I have always considered Alan Johnson a genuinely thoughtful and decent man. THIS BOY confirms it.