From po­lit­i­cal mem­oirs to his­tor­i­cal fic­tion

Labour MP Alan Johnson’s third and fi­nal mem­oir con­cludes his po­lit­i­cal story – so what’s next? A his­tor­i­cal novel, it seems. He talked to Cather­ine Larner ahead of his ap­pear­ance at the Suf­folk Li­braries Book­fest

EADT Suffolk - - Contents -

ALAN Johnson is work­ing his way through piles of let­ters and emails. At one time they might have been cor­re­spon­dence from des­per­ate and anx­ious con­stituents. These days they’re just as likely to be from ad­mir­ing read­ers, keen to en­gage with a tal­ented, award-win­ning au­thor who has brought the past vividly to life.

“I feel I’m a writer and not a politi­cian these days,” he says, of a ca­reer that once saw him tipped to be leader of the Labour party. Johnson served in the cab­i­nets of both the Blair and Brown gov­ern­ments, var­i­ously as Home Sec­re­tary, Health Sec­re­tary and Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary. More re­cently he has gained ac­claim and a new, less par­ti­san, au­di­ence through the two vol­umes of his mem­oirs, This Boy, and Please, Mis­ter Post­man.

“When I left gov­ern­ment there was in­ter­est in ‘an Alan Johnson book’,” he says, “but I thought the po­lit­i­cal mem­oir [of my years in gov­ern­ment] had been done to death al­ready.” He fo­cused in­stead on his up­bring­ing and life be­fore pol­i­tics, and be­lieves these books were so well re­ceived not be­cause of who wrote them but be­cause they encapsulated a piece of our past.

“I’m at that sad stage – what I call ‘my youth’ is de­scribed by other peo­ple as ‘so­cial his­tory’.” The first book gave Johnson the op­por­tu­nity to be the bi­og­ra­pher of his mother, he says, some­one “who had lived and died with­out any­one know­ing she ever trod this earth”. He de­scribed the hard­ships of a child­hood in the slums of post-war Lon­don, aban­doned by his fa­ther, then los­ing his mother when he was just 13, and be­ing brought up by his sis­ter while she was still just a child her­self. It achieved pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal ac­claim – and peo­ple wanted to know what hap­pened next.

“I feel I’m a writer and not a politi­cian these days”

The sec­ond vol­ume moved on to life in the 1970s. Johnson left school at 15 and stacked shelves in a su­per­mar­ket. At 18, he met and mar­ried a sin­gle mother. They went on to have two more chil­dren and, try­ing to make ends meet, he worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, as a post­man.

Far from be­ing in­dul­gent ‘mis­ery’ mem­oirs, Johnson writes with warm in­ti­macy, invit­ing the reader into his con­fi­dence, treat­ing them to a poignant ac­count of dif­fi­cul­ties over­come and sad­ness faced, us­ing hu­mour, prag­ma­tism and de­ter­mi­na­tion to counter ad­ver­sity. There was a cer­tain inevitabil­ity about com­plet­ing the story, he says. So, this au­tumn, the third, and fi­nal, vol­ume is re­leased. Called The Long and Wind­ing Road – all three books have ti­tles taken from Bea­tles songs, re­flect­ing his early am­bi­tions to be a rock star – this is the life ex­pe­ri­ence that Johnson was so re­luc­tant to re­count all along.

“I’ve hardly read a po­lit­i­cal biography in my life,” he says. In­deed, he cites a novel rather than a po­lit­i­cal tome which he be­lieves might have sown the seed for life as an ac­tivist.

“If there was one mo­ment, it was my English teacher get­ting a class of 13-year-old boys read­ing An­i­mal Farm and ex­plain­ing the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion.” He hopes his ap­proach to the sub­ject will “keep faith” with the read­ers who have fol­lowed him this far.

“It isn’t so much about the Prime Min­is­ter and my col­leagues in the Cabi­net,” he says of the book. “It’s about Ge­orge, the driver, and the peo­ple in pri­vate of­fice, the in­cred­i­ble char­ac­ters I’ve worked with. I think peo­ple are in­ter­ested in read­ing about other peo­ple. If you make the story about them, and less about all the things you have done, it kind of works.”

Nev­er­the­less, he couldn’t avoid touch­ing on the big is­sues of his term, such as Iraq and stu­dent fees.

“No one can say­ing any­thing good about the Blair gov­ern­ment, but we did a lot of good things,” he says. “I wanted to give my rea­sons.” And while the book ends in 2009, Johnson hopes there is enough there to in­still hope and con­fi­dence in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, in the face of the seis­mic changes of re­cent months.

“This is just an ex­tra­or­di­nary time,” he says, un­doubt­edly wounded af­ter lead­ing the un­suc­cess­ful Re­main cam­paign for Labour. “But it doesn’t de­tract from the value of democ­racy. If peo­ple un­der­stand how pol­i­tics work, and un­der­stand that their MPs are just elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, that’s good for pol­i­tics – and I sup­pose my book might be able to do that.” So, if this re­ally is the end of his po­lit­i­cal story, what hap­pens next?

“I’ve got an idea for a his­tor­i­cal novel – you’re not a writer un­til you’ve dealt with plot and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. I’m re­ally ex­cited about hav­ing the chance to do it, and hav­ing the chance to fail, if you like.” Any­one who has read Johnson’s books will doubt there’s much chance of him fail­ing.

Alan Johnson will be talk­ing at Ip­swich County Li­brary on Saturday, Oc­to­ber 29 for Suf­folk Li­braries Book­fest www.suf­folk­li­braries.co.uk/book­fest and at Ways with Words in South­wold on Mon­day Novem­ber 14 www.wayswith­words.co.uk.

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