This Boy by Alan Johnson

This Boy‘This Boy’ is Alan Johnson’s memoir of his childhood growing up in poverty in North Kensington during the 1950s and early 1960s. His womanising father Steve was mostly absent and his mother Lily struggled to provide a better life for her children whilst suffering from a chronic heart condition. After she died at the age of forty-two when Johnson was thirteen, his sixteen-year-old sister Linda fought for them to stay together in their own council flat despite their young age.

Winner of the Orwell Prize last year, ‘This Boy’ is a memoir written by a politician yet it isn’t overtly political. While Johnson’s childhood experiences have undoubtedly influenced his politics, there are hardly any references at all to the Labour Party or Johnson’s later career as Education Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary in the Blair and Brown governments. It isn’t even a memoir that is all about him. Instead, ‘This Boy’ is a moving tribute to his mother and sister who fought against adversity in extremely difficult circumstances.

Johnson once said in an interview with The Telegraph that he didn’t want ‘This Boy’ to become a parody of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank…”). Thankfully, ‘This Boy’ is far from a typical misery memoir and Johnson’s style of writing is fittingly understated as he recounts the appalling living conditions he endured. Today, North Kensington is a wealthy area of west London but in the 1950s, it was the scene of race riots and terrible poverty. Johnson outlines the social history and austerity of the post-war era and uses this to provide a relevant backdrop to his own life story.

Johnson has recently published a second volume of his memoirs ‘Please, Mister Postman’ about his experiences working as a postman and later as a trade union leader which I also want to read at some point. Whether he ever writes a third volume about his political career remains to be seen, but ‘This Boy’ alone is sure to cement Johnson’s long-standing reputation as one of the most down-to-earth and amiable politicians in the country as well as a very talented writer.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “This Boy by Alan Johnson

  1. Julie

    My thanks for this suggestion, I am always up for an inspirational read!

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  2. Johnson is a rarity for a politician. Loved this book.

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  3. I like the sound of this memoir, on to the wishlist it goes.

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  4. I started this, then it got misplaced when we moved…found it again, now, though, so I’m going to finish it, thanks for the reminder! I thought he had an astonishing memory, but there’s no hint of complaint…indeed, he regards himself as being very lucky. I think the sort of politician he was, working his way up from a working class start, is a thing of the past, and that’s not a good thing. You need an understanding of how the average guy lives.

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  5. Col

    Ive always liked Alan Johnson as a politician and for sone bizarre reason I see him occassionally at Victoria Station! I’d been intrigued by this book for a while and i think this is the second or third really positive review of it so i will add this to my list of books to look out for.

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  6. Sarah

    Have been meaning to read this for a while, definitely will now, thanks!

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  7. I really enjoyed this book and also heard him talking about the follow up at Damien Barr’s salon . This Boy is a very moving tribute to his mum and sister .

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  8. this is SUCH a good book !!! my whole family have read and loved it hahaha!

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  9. That’s on my list now, thanks.

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