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
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.