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This Boy – from poverty to parliament

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I was recommended Alan Johnson’s childhood memoir, This Boy, by Lovely Mum. I was curious as she’s not generally a reader of political biographies. I never think of her as very political at all, in fact, although she’s always drummed it into me that voting is important (i.e. it’s pretty much murderers, thieves and people who don’t vote, in her books). She never liked Tony Blair (smug) and she only liked the Green Party till they got in and started doing terrible things with the bins (apparently). But she liked this book because it reminded her of her childhood, being poor and the child of a single mother in London in the fifties and beyond.

She said she liked the book because it was well-written and ‘not one of those misery memoirs’. She was right on both counts, although Johnson lived in appalling conditions and had a lot to contend with in his young life. In fact, his style of writing reminded me of the way my mum talks about her childhood. She has always been the queen of matter of fact. When I asked her many years ago about her father who sloped off when she was two, about whether it bothered her, she said “I didn’t really think about it much. It was a bit embarrassing, I suppose. I just used to tell people he was dead.”

Like Johnson, she was used to the shame of being sent on begging errands by her mother, being dragged here and there in the search for extended credit or some other favour. They weren’t quite as destitute and there was no violent, gambling husband making a bad thing worse but it was a life of uncertainty, a childhood of thinking about food and electricity. There are possibly no fewer children today like that. Notting Hill, where Johnson grew up, is affluent now, but though Rachman’s slums are gone, other estates rot elsewhere.

One of the most interesting things about this book, which takes Johnson only so far as a job as a postman, is considering where he ended up – the Houses of Parliament. As a child he scavenged for coal on the street and was always, despite the best efforts of his lovable, kind mother and his almost superhumanly strong sister, hungry. A disinterested student with dreams of becoming a rock star, he comes across as a very normal, everyday person. I wonder how many primary school children living on crappy estates right now will end up in politics. It’s hard to imagine many of those biographies somehow. When you watch MPs braying and jeering at each other across the green leather benches, it reminds you that politics is still very much a posh man’s game overall.

Certainly Alan Johnson’s story is very inspiring, in an unassuming kind of way. It would still be a good read whatever he had ended up doing in later life, as it’s open-spirited, funny and honest, with twists and turns that keep you gripped, wondering how things might pan out. But the main thought the book left me with is that Alan Johnson feels like an unusual politician, and perhaps confidence in parliament would be greater if there were more who came across like him.

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