‘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.