Ex-MP turned best-selling author Alan Johnson has stories to tell
He started writing books while he was still an MP. Alan Johnson, the man who would have been PM, had been asked to write about his childhood. The resulting memoir, This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood, was astounding.
Well-written, remarkable in its portrayal of a time and place long forgotten and riven with humour and pathos, it was one of the finest books of 2013. This Boy won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in 2014 and the Orwell Prize, Britain’s top political writing award. Subsequently, he’s sold a cool half a million books – and that figure is rising fast – making him one of Britain’s best-loved and most successful authors.
“There was an amazing week,” he says. “I won the Orwell and Ondaatje prizes in the same week. It was fantastic. I’d been to see QPR beat Derby 1-0 on the Saturday, to win a play-off place. Then I went straight to the Hay Festival and had a crowd of 1,500. That was on the Sunday. On the Monday, I went to the Ondaatje Prize and won. Then on the Wednesday, I think, I got the Orwell prize. I was punch drunk by the end of it. But good punch drunk.”
Lest we forget, Johnson was one of the most popular politicians of his generation – a man who found favour with voters from all sides. Having worked as a postman, he rose through the ranks of the trade union movement before winning a seat in Parliament.
His rise at Westminster was rapid, culminating in a remarkable four-year spell during which time he held three of the great offices of state. He was Education Secretary from May 2006 to June 2007, Health Secretary until June 2009 then Home Secretary until May 2010. And when the British electorate voted for a hung Parliament, he was the man most likely to succeed Gordon Brown and become the new Prime Minister – until Nick Clegg had other ideas and got into bed with David Cameron.
Soon after, Johnson began to write. He hasn’t stopped. He left Parliament in May 2017, standing down from his Hull West and Hessle constituency to focus on the written word. This Boy had given him a taste of a new career and it’s one to which he’s become devoted.
“People think the books read well and as a writer, that’s worth all the lonely hours that I spend sitting at the desk. I kind of always felt that I would be an okay writer because I’d been a precocious teenager who’d read a lot.
“As a kid, I enjoyed watching football so I wanted to play. Then I enjoyed listening to music so wanted to do that. Then I enjoyed reading and wanting to write. I guess I put it on hold for 40-50 years.”
Ah yes, music. It’s a little known fact about Alan Johnson that he’d have gladly traded in his years in Parliament for a spell in the charts. He formed his own band and came within an ace of making it to the big time. And it’s his excursions into the world of music that inform his latest book, the beautifully written In My Life. It follows his earlier volumes: The Long and Winding Road and Please, Mister Postman. All four of Johnson’s books were named after Beatles songs – the Fab Four being his heroes.
As a boy, Johnson was transported by the sound of True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly on the radio. He fell in love with The Beatles who became his lifelong passion while in the late 1970s he surfed the wave of post-punk bands such as Elvis Costello, Tom Robinson and XTC. Music has been the soundtrack to Johnson’s life and his fourth book reflects on its importance.
In My Life vividly transports readers to a bygone world of Dansettes and jukeboxes, of heartfelt love songs and heart-broken ballads, of smoky coffee shops and dingy dance halls. From Bob Dylan to David Bowie, from Lonnie Donegan to Bruce Springsteen, all of Alan’s favourites feature.
“I started listening to music at an unusually early age. Back in the 1950s, there were no ageing rockers then because pop music was still in its infancy. My sister was two-and-a-half years older than me and we were both just captivated by pop music.
“We weren’t listening to music to escape because we weren’t unhappy kids. We didn’t think of ourselves as being poor or deprived. The posh kids at the other end of Kensington would have been just as fascinated by music. It was just a part of our lives.”
Johnson loved his time in bands. He’d spent long hours in pokey rooms learning to play a guitar that his mother had bought him after winning money on the pools. He forged friendships with like-minded young adults, including his pal, Andrew Wiltshire, who was a drummer. “Finding four other musicians to play with was just wonderful. With Andrew, his mum and dad would buy him a new addition to his drum kit each birthday and Christmas, so he gradually built it up. We would play music in the bedroom he shared with his brother in White City. Then we formed this group, called The Area. It was like discovering the joys of cycling after spending years on an exercise bike. I’ve never forgotten how good that felt. I do have a regret at not doing more with music.”
But Johnson didn’t have time. He settled down at the age of 18 and by the age of 20 he’d got three kids. “I had all the joy of a family life, so I never complain. But I was desperate to be a Bowie freak and paint my face. Responsibility held me down like a pin through a mounted butterfly. I was working as a postman all hours to get overtime so that I could provide. Even going to play in a pub band would have been difficult.”
Johnson listened to music on his record player and was captivated by The Beatles, charting their career admiringly until they broke up in 1970. He was a fan of Joni Mitchell and loved West Coast Americana, being particularly fond of Crosby Stills and Nash. In the UK, he enjoyed the music of Cat Stephens then caught the wave of cool post-punk new wave led by Costello, Robinson, XTC at el.
The Beatles, however, remain pre-eminent. “The Beatles changed the world. They changed the way kids looked. They changed the way music was presented. The Beatles made the album into an art form, which was iconic. Suddenly, British rock acts were invading American instead of being Elvis imitators.
"To live through it in real time and go from With Love From Me To You to Tomorrow Never Knows to Sergeant Pepper’s and Strawberry Fields Forever was amazing. It was like watching the planet evolve in front of your eyes.
"I don’t think their music ever goes stale at all. I put on lots of stuff from the sixties, which I really love, like The Small Faces and The Who. But somehow those bands don’t sound as fresh as The Beatles. You get a track like In My Life and if that was recorded today it would sound just as incredible.”
Johnson met his hero, Paul McCartney, and came close to meeting John Lennon too when he was at a TV show featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Lennon was on the show and walked by Johnson, though they never actually met.
Such is Johnson’s fandom that when he launched his latest book he did it at Studio Two, in Abbey Road, where The Beatles recorded the majority of their songs.
“To launch at Abbey Road was incredible. It hasn’t changed since the 1930s. When a studio gets the sound right, they leave everything exactly as it is, from the curtains to the floor coverings and the decorations, the lot. There’s a story about Studio One, which has a wood parquet floor. At one stage, they lacquered it, but that changed the sound in the studio – it wasn’t quite right and they realised the lacquer had done something to the sound. So they took every parquet tile up, stripped off the varnish and relaid every single one.”
Johnson’s books provide readers with an insight into what made his remarkable career. He grew up in dirt poor surrounds and his feckless father was soon gone – having first abused his downtrodden wife and left zip in the way of money to provide for his kids.
His mother died young – Johnson was not yet 16 – having been broken by the privations of a truly difficult life. It seemed likely at that point that Johnson and his beloved elder sister, Linda, would be separated and put into care. But Linda managed to persuade a social worker by the name of Mr Pepper to keep them together. He found them a place of their own and they kept their family unit intact. Mr Pepper’s decision to listen to Johnson and his sister changed their lives. And it was Johnson’s own ability to listen and try to find the best outcome that was the cornerstone of his political career. He lived through the Blair and Brown eras, being one of the few to please both masters, and remains loyal to both.
And yet when Johnson takes to the road to promote his new book – a past time that is, in essence, his own belated foray into the world of rock stardom and touring – he seldom mentions either. Occasionally, an audience member will ask him about Blair or Brown, Boris or Brexit, but mostly they’re interested in the man behind the mask. And that’s been a boon to him.
“I do a lot of literary festivals and spoken word evenings but mostly people are interested in the writing and the music, that’s what strikes a chord.”
In many ways, Johnson’s a free man.
No longer constrained by party politics, he can say and do as he pleases.
“I am pleased to escape the whip and I don’t have to go down to London every Monday and be there until God knows what time. It was great being an MP.
“It was a privilege and I enjoyed doing it for 20 years. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a bad job. It’s not.
“And these days I’m still involved. There are lots of local causes and charities that I work with. It’s not like it stopped.”
He’s looking forward to visiting the Black Country as part of his literary tour, with dates at Much Wenlock’s Edge Arts Centre on February 1 and Wolverhampton Literary Festival on February 2. He’ll return later in summer to play Shrewsbury’s Walker Theatre and Stourport’s Civic Hall in June.
“I like the Black Country and I like the Express & Star. I remember when I was a Minister that I was always very well treated by the newspaper. They’d always treat me with courtesy and that’s stuck in my mind. The people in that area were always very welcoming, too, so it’ll be fun to do a couple of dates in that part of the world.”
He’ll return to his study to write further books once those dates are done.
“The important thing about writing is to do it. You have to get it down on the page. You shouldn’t ponce about and make a cup or tea or go for a walk. My mantra is ‘get the arse on the seat and get writing’.
“Then it’s rewriting until it’s right.”
When he looks back across a remarkable career, his proudest political achievement came in securing compensation for trawlermen, who had been ignored by the Government for 20 years. He has few regrets. “As Frank Sinatra said, I’ve had a few, but then again….”
It’s the perfect way to end. One of the great political figures of the past 20 years has found happiness and succour in written reflection. And with his spellbinding prose, the man and the music, the songs and the stories are all beautifully rendered.