It’s always interesting, seeing politicians being interviewed. Retired politicians even more so, because they are far less constrained in what they can and do say: in recent years, I’ve enjoyed some fascinating encounters with Paddy Ashdown, John Major and Gordon Brown.
The Right Honourable Alan Johnson left politics in 2017 and has forged a highly successful career as an author, having just published his fourth memoir (“Winston Churchill wrote eight”, he cracked). ‘In My Life’ is a “music memoir”: a stepping stone towards the fiction that he is keen to write.
What I hadn’t known about our former Home Secretary and one-time General Secretary of the Union of Communication Workers is that he was once in a rock and roll band and dreamed of being a professional musician. Tonight, he talked to us about his childhood, his various careers and his lifelong passion for The Beatles – an engrossing conversation interspersed with Johnson’s all-time favourite songs.
‘True Love’ by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
1957: the year that Anthony Eden resigned and the EEC was formed. This song, Johnson told us, is his earliest memory of music and for that reason he finds it highly evocative.
Alan Johnson grew up in West Kensington, at that time a “very poor” part of London. There was, he reminisced, a pub on every corner, usually home to a piano. Indeed, Johnson’s father, Stephen, was a pub pianist. He was also “feckless” – and a violent drunk. When he ran off with a bar maid, “it was as though a cloud had been removed”.
Johnson’s mother, Lily, preferred being at home listening to ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’ on the radio (my mother, sat next to me, was nodding her head nostalgically at this point). One of Lily’s favourite things to do was to dress up and take Alan and his older sister, Linda, to the pictures; a treat for all concerned. Less enjoyable for her children were Sundays, when most activities, even playing cards, were forbidden (cue more nodding by my mother); the highlight of the Lord’s Day was the 4pm visit by wheelbarrowmen selling whelks and cockles.
‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates
“I remember buying this record from a shop on Portobello Road in 1960”, Alan Johnson beamed. Describing it to us as the first authentic British rock n roll record, he had thought it produced by an American band the first time he heard it.
‘All My Loving’ by The Beatles
1963: the year that Patsy Cline died and JFK was assassinated; also the year of Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream speech”.
Aged 16, Linda was already working, to try and pay off their mother’s debts; poor Lily was in hospital critically ill. She needed a heart operation but was refusing, convinced that if she went under the knife she would die at the age of 42, like her grandmother and mother. After she’d been in hospital for a number of months, the doctors warned Lily that her health was now so precarious that she would die if she didn’t undergo surgery. Persuaded by Linda, Lily finally agreed – but by now was so poorly that her body couldn’t withstand the surgery and she died on the operating table. Alan and Linda were now, to all intents and purposes, orphans.
The duo told no one, not even Alan’s teachers, but were eventually visited by a social worker: Mr Pepper. He found foster parents for Alan and a Barnardo’s place for Linda and, when they refused to be separated, offered them an “awful” council flat. Linda, who sounds a most formidable character (she was only 16, remember) told Mr Pepper there was not a cat in hell’s chance they would accept it – and that good soul came up trumps with a two-bedroom maisonette in Battersea, where the siblings lived, independently, for the next two years until Linda got married.
‘Summer in the City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful
It was 1966 and in the middle of a “glorious” summer England won the World Cup. By now, Johnson had three passions: football (he’s an ardent QPR supporter), books…and music, “which I watched and played lots of”. Somehow, I got into the 100 Club, even though I was too young”.
And then, a bolt from the blue. Johnson was signed up as a guitarist by Inbetweeners who were fronted, unusually for that time, by a woman. Exciting as this was, Johnson also accepted a job with the Post Office, having met the woman he wanted to marry as soon as he turned 18. “The pay was bad”, he recalls, “but there was lots of overtime”.
Sad to say, Inbetweeners never found the musical success that Johnson yearned for – but his career progressed in other ways and in 1999 he accepted his first Parliamentary post, which was the point at which this talk ended.
The holder of five different Cabinet posts did, though, take questions from the audience, including “Which achievement in your Parliamentary career are you most proud of?” Answer: “Finding a successful outcome for the Hull fishermen’s campaign, which had been going on for 20 years”. Asked when he became politically aware he responded that he was so even before he left school, aged 15 – having endured a brutal education during which he was caned regularly. The high point of school was a “great” English Literature teacher who had encouraged a young Alan’s love of reading…”in due course, I became influenced by George Orwell’s books, and his warnings against a totalitarian state”.
The best (and shortest) Q&A of the night was undoubtedly the final one.
Q: “Which Beatles song best sums up the current Brexit situation?”