Home Secretary is just one of the many cabinet positions Alan Johnson held during his twenty years as an MP, but it could all have been so different if someone hadn’t stolen his guitar.
He talked to Fergus Byrne about his life in music and politics and the career that might have been.
The late Roger Mayne once told me that he felt he had ‘saddled’ himself with Southam Street, the street in North Kensington that he photographed extensively in the late fifties. He wasn’t complaining; just explaining how one can be typecast by the series of photographs. His Southam Street series went on to become iconic in their reflection of life on the rough streets of what is now better known as Notting Hill.
For former MP and Cabinet Minister, Alan Johnson, Southam Street was home. He remembers Roger Mayne’s photographs with a sense of affection and recalls that in one of them he recognised his older sister playing as a child. One of his prized possessions is a letter Roger wrote to him after he mentioned the photographs on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
During twenty years as an MP, eleven years as a Government Minister and five years in various Cabinet positions, Alan never really highlighted his upbringing. He says he only ‘alluded’ to it occasionally, explaining that it was ‘because it sounds as if you’re using it for political advantage. I was very loathed to do that then.’ The details of his extraordinary childhood were eventually put into his first memoir, This Boy, which was published in 2013. He went on to write two more memoirs about his time as a postman as well as his life in politics. Throughout each of the three books, his interest in music runs like a persistent loose thread sitting alongside the story and sometimes feels like a suppressed energy waiting to be let loose. He has recently unleashed that narrative of his dream to be a rock star and his passion for popular music into a new book, In My Life. When featured on Desert Island Discs in 2007, whilst still working as a politician, Kirsty Young mentioned that ‘all politicians like to lay claim to popular culture’ but In My Life shows a knowledge, an understanding and an affection for music that goes far beyond an interest in needing to associate with young, or even not so young voters.
Anyone who has written or related stories and moments from their early lives will know that one of the key benefits, apart from restoring precious memories, is bringing events and even people back to life. In This Boy, Alan Johnson relished the opportunity to give his mother’s life a place in history. At the age of seven, his father had left home one Christmas Eve while his mother was in hospital and didn’t return. Alan, aged just seven and his ten-year-old sister Linda were left to eat the sweets they found hidden in a pillowcase for Christmas before venturing out to see their mother in the hospital. His father appeared briefly again but soon disappeared for good.
Suffering from an unusual heart condition, Alan’s mother Lily died a few years later when he was not yet fourteen. ‘The glorious thing for me is that I was making my mother live again on the page’ he says. ‘And no one knew about my mother. There’s no grave—her ashes were scattered somewhere in Kensal Rise cemetery.’ His sister’s boyfriend at the time paid for a little rose to be planted with a plaque. But they didn’t know it had to be renewed every five years and so it was ripped up. ‘So there’s nothing to mark her life.’ The fact that This Boy has now sold half a million copies gives him some solace. ‘That’s the privilege of it’ he says. ‘My mother lives again, and so many people now have related to her story.’ Her death and the difficult circumstances in which she lived were not unusual. ‘And so many people of that generation, the generation before mine, who went through the war and went through the depression of the 30s, who came from big families, were used to death’ he explained. Two of his mother’s siblings died in infancy, and her mother had borne eleven children. His mother’s siblings died of pneumonia following measles, which Alan says was very common. ‘They were an amazing generation, and my mum was just one representative of them.’
It was his Mums efforts to scrape the money together to take him to see Lonnie Donegan at the Chiswick Empire that sealed his passion and dreams of becoming a musician. ‘As soon as I saw him on the stage with the guitar that was something I wanted to emulate’ he explained. ‘My father was a talented musician, and part of that comes down in my DNA—and of course the generation I come from. I hit my teens just as the Beatles came out and grew up with Rock ‘n’ Roll.’
This was at a time when music was the attraction, not fame. Today, the ubiquitous imagery and access to the lives of those that perform in public is such that the icon is often the attraction, not the talent. Growing up in an era when the BBC was constrained by ‘needle time’ and could only play a small percentage of recorded music, Alan remembered how music was a ‘shared experience’. His were the days of what he describes as, ‘crackly radio Luxemburg or the pirate radio stations’. That’s not to say that he doesn’t appreciate the huge choice available today. ‘It’s great to have more choice’ he explains, but he feels there was a benefit to the limited coverage and unavailability of choice in what you listened to, because ‘you had these enormous shared experiences—millions of people watching and listening to the same programme.’ There is a certain sense that today’s wider choice has had the effect of pushing people into smaller and more disparate groups.
Like his previous books, which were all titled after a Beatles song, In My Life is broken down into year chapters which are all given a title of a song from that year. From the Cole Porter penned True Love which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1957 to Billy Joel’s Allentown in 1982 there is an enormous breadth of musical history that is not only engrossing but will bring back many memories for those who felt aware that there was a musical soundtrack to their lives. Thankfully it doesn’t read like a history textbook, but as Alan says, ‘rather depressingly what I call my youth is described by others as social history.’
Despite being part of two proper groups and auditioning with a reasonably major band at the time, his efforts to make his living out of music didn’t pan out. His mother had left a surprise legacy after she died which allowed him to buy a guitar, what he described lovingly as ‘a cherry-red Höfner Verithin with Venetian double cutaways, mother-of-pearl inlay on the head and neck, a black scratchboard and a Bigsby tremolo unit.’ Although he claims it was probably through lack of talent, with a growing interest in popular music and the wherewithal to allow people to access it, it’s likely that he could have pursued his dreams and achieved a level of success. But a mixture of bad luck in having all his kit stolen, not once but twice, along with the fact that at a very young age he had three mouths to feed, meant he had to move on—despite the fact that in 1971, having moved to his first proper council house on the Britwell estate in Slough, he remembered how music was as critical to his life ‘as the air in my lungs and the blood in my veins’.
Although the music carried on pulsing through those veins and he carried on writing and playing, his interests, from Johnny Kidd & the Pirates to Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello grew, and they ramble engagingly across the years covered by the book.
Unlike many who fell under the spell of Bob Dylan’s gravelly protest lyrics, he doesn’t believe that music ever politicised him. He puts that down to a teacher who introduced him to the writings of George Orwell. ‘This was a year after the Cuban missile crisis’ he remembers. ‘We boys were going out into a world dominated by fear.’ He became obsessed with Orwell and had read everything by him by the time he was 20. ‘I’d say a combination of George Orwell and my experiences in the Union politicised me’ he says. In his early 20s, married with three children, Alan’s career path was via the Post Office to the then Union of Post Office Workers, which in time, became the Communication Workers’ Union. He would eventually become General Secretary and go on to join the Labour Government under Tony Blair holding a variety of different Cabinet positions in both Blair’s and Brown’s governments, including Home Secretary, before retiring in 2017.
As it happens, the day we speak is March 29th, the day that Britain was scheduled to leave the EU. So it seems reasonable to ask where he stands on what history will call the Brexit crisis—or perhaps the “first” Brexit Crisis. ‘I would have voted for the deal first time round in December’ he says of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal. ‘The wonder to me is that Theresa May can’t sell her own deal. She is so unpersuasive. It actually is a good deal in terms of the withdrawal settlement. Because all the discussion, whether it’s about Common market 2.0, which I support, or whether it’s about the Canada option or whatever, that’s all for the next stage of the future relationship.’
He admits that Theresa May was dealt a lousy hand but says she’s played it very poorly indeed. However, he is just as bemused by his own party. ‘I can’t understand why Labour is against it other than wanting to force a general election’ he says, echoing what many throughout the country have said. ‘Really it should be about country first and not your political interests.’ He also believes history could have been written differently if the Prime Minister had been a tad more careful in how she addressed her fellow members of parliament after yet another defeat to her proposal. What he called the ‘naughty naughty’ speech blaming MPs for not supporting her probably didn’t help. ‘My sense was that she could have got more Labour people to vote for it if she hadn’t made that extraordinary speech. She castigated the very people she had to persuade just as they were starting to come over. People like Lisa Nandy and Caroline Flint had already been voting for it. She shot herself in both feet… which means there’ll be an extension of article 50 and we’ll see what happens then.’ However, as we have all learned, a week, no a day in politics is a very long time, and between March 29th and the time people read this just about anything could have happened.