There is much to admire about Alan Johnson, although I have disagreed with many of his policy positions over the years. He has always seemed to be a charming yet serious person, with many achievements and a hinterland, a politician with a real story to tell.
Now he has told his story, or at least the first part of it. His autobiography This Boy takes us up to the age of 18 in 1968 and covers his childhood in what is now called Notting Hill, in the area between the canal and the railway which is also variously described as Notting Dale, North Kensington, Kensal Town, and Golborne. With a disappearing father and a sickly mother, it is a tale of grinding poverty and appalling housing conditions told in an unsentimental, humorous and brilliantly observed way. It is both inspirational and thought-provoking. When we read so much about the failings of the poor, and the apparently growing belief in our nation that they bring it on themselves, here is something closer to the truth: a family that took on any job that came their way, and took every opportunity. It’s just that opportunities were few and far between.
The book is fascinating because I know the location so well, having lived not far away for more than 30 years. As Alan tells constant stories of the streets, and lived through the Rachman era, the riots, the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane, the slum clearances ending with the building of the iconic Trellick Tower, the building of the Westway, and the spookiness of the house previously known as 10 Rillington Place where he delivered milk, he makes it all seem so familiar. It is a personal story so he doesn’t delve in to the political context of the area at the time: the indifference of the Tory Council, the explosion of community action, and the rise of organisations like the Notting Hill Housing Trust.
Like so many other genuine stories of working class life, this book is mainly about women. His mother was from Liverpool and endured a life of penury, but lived and worked for her children. The real heroine of the piece, Alan’s sister Linda, took responsibility for the family in her early teens as their mother fell ill and eventually died, constantly standing up to authority and holding things together. There are other remarkable characters: friends who share what little they have without hesitation when crisis looms, a social worker who keeps Alan and Linda out of care, and an inspirational and caring teacher.
Alan’s book is about a time of hardship which was only 50 years ago. So many things have improved since, inside toilets for a start, and most of us thought we would never go back. But as welfare reform bites and more people fall below the poverty line, we will hear many more stories of families struggling against the odds in just the same way.