Forest of Dean & Wye Valley


In R.Richardson, Reviews on September 6, 2013 at 12:32 pm


The recently published memoir, “This Boy”, by Alan Johnson is no ordinary politician’s autobiography. It ends where others might begin, with Johnson’s marriage at the young age of 18. His childhood was quite unlike that of most of his political contemporaries, and he tells his story with a vividness and simplicity that is quite compelling.

Johnson was born in 1950, in poverty stricken North Kensington, now gentrified out of all recognition. Many houses, including his family’s, were condemned, had no electricity and shared a lavatory in the back yard. Indeed, the shocking conditions were what might have been expected half a century earlier.

His mother, Lily, is one of the stars of the book. The other is Linda, his elder sister. Lily, a small, feisty Liverpudlian has to cope with a feckless and sometimes violent husband, and also a serious heart condition which proves fatal when Alan is only 13. Lily does her best for her children, working two or three jobs, mainly cleaning, to support them. She dreams of “having her own front door”, and poignantly the offer of a new three bedroomed house in Welwyn Garden City comes through two weeks after her death.

Johnson’s sister, Linda, the other star in the book, takes charge aged just 16. She is determined that she and her brother should stay together. She fends off well meaning relations from Liverpool and council officials who want to send Alan to foster parents and herself to a Doctor Barnardo’s hostel (she is by now training as a nursery nurse). The offer of the house in Welwyn Garden City was withdrawn, but thanks to Linda’s persistance, a flat is finally offered to the two of them in Wandsworth.

This story is set against the backdrop of 1950s’ London. The unscrupulous land lord Peter Rachman was operating and there were racial tensions, though Alan Johnson had left the area by the time the Notting Hill riots finally erupted. The infamous murder of Kelso Cochrane. an innocent black immigrant, is almost witnessed by Lily.


By contrast, the music scene of ‘fifties London was important to young Alan, a self-taught guitarist. The one gift that his feckless father had left him was musical talent. Johnson was in a number of “boy bands” which peppered the London scene in the 1960s and indeed the ’70s. Johnson hoped when he left school to make a career in music, but as we know his life followed a very different path.


In an age when most of our politicians, especially those in the ranks of government, come from privileged backgrounds, Johnson is surely unique. He served in Cabinet under Blair and Brown, and according to the Spectator came to be “the potential Labour leader most feared by many Conservatives“.

Now aged 62, Alan Johnson is presently treading water on the opposition benches. He looks forward to Labour returning to power and doesn’t rule out an eventual front line post. A man to watch and a man to admire, I think – and you can’t say that about many politicians!

“This Boy: A memoir of a childhood” is published by Bantam Press. 2013.

  1. I thought you might be interested to watch Alan Johnson in The Origins of Notting Hill Housing, a short documentary which shows how a group of passionate social reformers set about tackling the appalling housing conditions found in Notting Hill in the mid-1960s. Here’s the link:

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