by Alan Johnson
A book that I would not normally have chosen, I bought this on a 3 for 2 offer at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge along with a detective novel and a book on literary theory. And now I never want to be heard complaining about my circumstances again – ever. To my shame, I wouldn’t normally go for biography. Particularly not the biography of a Labour politician. I’m too easily drawn by the escapism of fiction. However, I was humbled and inspired by this account. I was left with a sense of having met with the character of Lily, Alan’s mother, named Lily throughout, never ‘mum’ or ‘my mother’ and also with Alan himself. Not the boy Alan that the writer describes, but the Alan who wrote the book, Alan the writer. The adult Alan. Like Pissarro in his impressionist paintings, he only just peeps into his own work. I love a person free from the shackles of their own ego and there was a wonderful absence of ego in this piece of writing. No self-glorification, nor self-congratulation or self-anything. Just a frank description, at times humorous, at times painfully bleak and moving of a childhood which I for one would not have survived. Oddly, despite her key role in the story, Alan’s sister Linda did not come alive for me despite being very much alive herself. It was Lily’s courage and vulnerability and perseverance and unselfishness that came to the fore.
Chris Mullin in The Guardian summarises the outline of the story well:
‘Lily, and Johnson’s sister Linda, are the heroes of this story. Lily, whose life was a constant struggle against loneliness, grinding poverty and poor health, managed in the teeth of great odds to bring her children up decently. She died, aged 42, leaving Alan and Linda, aged 13 and 16, to fend for themselves. At which point Linda took over. Resisting attempts to take them into care, she succeeded in persuading the local authority to find them a council flat in Battersea and held the fort until Alan was old enough to make his way in the world. His first job (apart from a milk round) was as a postal clerk at the headquarters of razor manufacturer Remington. He later graduated to a Tesco’s warehouse. All he ever wanted was to be a pop star and he almost made it.’
He also wanted to be writer. In that, and of course, as a politician, he did make it. I got excited when it seemed at the beginning of the story that Lily had some sort of Christian faith. It’s rare nowadays, as far as I can see, for anyone to write very much that’s positive about Christians unless they themselves have a faith and so Lily seemed to me to be a potential role model to the women of England today. Like her son, selfless (perhaps that’s where he learnt it), thoroughly hard-working to a fault and faithful too. Sadly, however, it is revealed towards the end that whatever her faith was at the start, it ended in a kind of spiritualism that brought her no comfort but rather a dread that death would come inevitably at the age of 42 as it had come to her mother and her grandmother before her.
The review goes on: ‘Given his start in life Alan Johnson could have been forgiven had he turned into an angry, bitter class-warrior instead of the affable, sensible, laid back politician that he was to become.’ I wanted to review this book because, for me, the reading of it edified. Even the reviews were edifying. I love reading about characters whom I can admire, whom I’d like to try to emulate were I put in a similar situation. Such books lift me and challenge me to live better the life I have been given today. I felt ashamed of how easily I complain when the drain is a bit smelly or when, living in College accommodation I’m not allowed to drill holes in the wall where I want to. At least I have my own front door and I don’t have to share a house with another family or go outside to get to the loo! I have a bathroom. No, I have two. I don’t have to cover my bed with coats to keep warm as they did (although I do remember doing this in St Andrews where in winter it was often -9 degrees). I get to buy my groceries with the happy perk of a free coffee and a newspaper being the smug owner of a ‘My Waitrose’ card. Never have I had to suffer the humiliation of asking the shopkeeper for a handout – not that one would ever be given nowadays. How is it that I complain so easily that I am embarrassed about being a stay at home mother when Lily had to work as hard as she did, breaking both her physical and her mother’s heart to earn enough to feed and clothe her two children? Do I have any idea how privileged I am to have three meals at day, not to mention the endless snacks on tap whenever I lack the self-control to resist them. How easily I take for granted fresh fruit when Alan’s staple diet was bread and dripping. Sometimes a read like this is good for me. It gives me a new perspective on my own world and teaches me thankfulness. And in my experience, my thankful days are my happiest days. Forbid it that I should lapse back into my discontented habits after reading this thought-provoking book.