I really enjoyed reading Alan Johnson’s first memoir This Boy which recounted his childhood growing up in poverty in north Kensington during the 1950s and 1960s. In the second volume, ‘Please, Mister Postman’, Johnson reflects on his early career as a postman while bringing up a young family in Slough. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became more and more involved in trade union activities at work, thus setting him on the path to a long and eventful political career.
‘Please, Mister Postman’ continues more or less exactly where ‘This Boy’ left off. At the age of eighteen, Johnson started working at the Post Office in Barnes, an affluent area of south-west London, having previously stacked shelves at Tesco. Shortly after marrying his pregnant girlfriend, Judy Cox, Johnson transferred to the Slough branch of the Post Office and moved in to a council house on the Britwell estate with his growing family. Although Johnson generally avoids foreshadowing about his future political career, he mentions with some irony that on one of his rounds he used to deliver the post to Dorneywood, the Berkshire residence of various Cabinet ministers, a role he would later hold himself in government.
Johnson’s writing is generally more engaging when dwelling on personal rather than political matters. He writes very movingly about the tragic death of his brother-in-law Mike Whitaker to whom the book is dedicated. Although some of the passages towards the end of the book outlining various trade union disputes tend to become rather dry, his pen portraits of family members and colleagues are entertaining and affectionate without becoming oversentimental. His career progression through the trade unions ultimately served as his political awakening and as a catalyst for his election as a Member of Parliament years later. However, his role as a union official caused him to spend increasing amounts of time away from home and eventually contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Judy in the 1980s, the point at which this volume ends.
The third volume of Johnson’s memoirs ‘The Long and Winding Road’ (yes, another appropriate pun on a classic Beatles song) will be published this autumn. Elected as a Labour MP for Hull West in 1997 (a seat which he still holds today), Johnson’s reflections on his political career in the Blair and Brown governments during which he held a number of prominent Cabinet posts will no doubt be a source of great interest to a wider audience who haven’t necessarily read the two earlier volumes. Judging by his measured reflections on his past so far, I doubt ‘The Long and Winding Road’ will contain the same kind of explosive revelations found in many political memoirs but I hope it will be every bit as fascinating and poignant as his other books.