This Boy is a joy to read. Alan Johnson writes beautifully about his childhood, about growing up in the aftermath of the second world war in slum housing in Kensal Town, but above all, about his wonderful mother, Lily, and sister, Linda. Alan wrote This Boy as a memoir to Lily and Linda, but his book has far wider significance.
A memoir to past generations who fought for and founded the welfare state, This Boy is set at a time when the 1945 post-war settlement is under attack as never before. Johnson’s writing conveys, in a way that a social policy text book never could, why free school meals, council housing and the NHS meant so much to his generation, and why the welfare state is worth fighting for.
Slum clearance after the war is now regarded as a mistake, but This Boy reminds readers that there were slums that had taken too long to clear. Alan grew up at 107 Southam Street, a row of housing that had been condemned in the 1930s, which was owned by the Rowe Housing Trust. People lived on the street, in the local pubs and at work, because their housing – one would struggle to call slums a home – were so awful. Outside toilets, bed bugs, scavenging for coal, sleeping in a jumper, subsisting on cornflakes for tea were part of the warp and weft of daily life for Lily, Linda and Alan. Violence and petty crime were the darker sides of life where everyone knew each other; protecting one’s family trumped giving information to the police. Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year-old Antiguan working as a carpenter, was brutally murdered at the end of Alan’s street on 17 May 1959. To this day, his killers have yet to be brought to justice.
Alan writes very honestly about how his father, Steve, treated his mother Lily, who worked herself to an early death. Lily died in her early 40s, the same age as her mother and grandmother, after battling against poor health all her life and working long hours as a cleaner as she struggled to make ends meet. As Alan so eloquently writes: “to Steve evenings at the piano were always more important than mornings at work”. When historians and social commentators write about the advent of women working after they had a family, they are writing about married middle-class women; working-class women have always worked to put food on the table for their family. It’s easy to gloss over the impact that the NHS, family allowances, contraception and equal pay legislation had on women working long hours as cleaners and factory workers, as well as women who trained as teachers, nurses and doctors. All her life Lily had been looking forward to moving into a council house with her own front door and inside toilet; the offer letter from the council arrived shortly after she had died.
Although Alan and Linda never had enough to eat, they had a happy childhood. Queens Park Rangers, music, books caught Alan’s imagination as did the London museums. In the school holidays, Lily would send Linda and Alan off to play in Kensington Gardens. A day in the park wasn’t complete for Alan without going to turn on the model of London at the time of the Great Fire in the museum in Kensington Palace; he insisted on flicking the switch on every single visit. Alan writes about how he and Linda would head off to the museums in Exhibition Road and that they went so often “that we could have been employed as tour guides at the Science Museum, the Geological Museum and the V&A”, but nothing beat seeing the blue whale in the Natural History Museum. One can’t imagine today, young people having the kind of freedom in the school holidays to play on their own and explore all the treasures that London has to offer.
As well as providing a compelling insight into why council housing and the NHS were so popular in the post-war era, This Boy describe a different experience of grammar schools from that articulated by Labour members such as Joan Bakewell and Melvyn Bragg. With the exception of Mr Pallai and Mr Carlen’s history and English classes, Alan disliked Sloane Grammar and left without any qualifications. No one seemed to notice that he missed many months of schooling when recovering from appendicitis. The trade union movement was to be Alan’s route to becoming and MP and a cabinet minister, rather than Oxbridge, the BBC and the professions for people who from working-class families who did well at grammar schools.
An early skirmish with the warehouse manager at Tesco gave Alan a strong sense that workers need a voice and to be protected; on joining the Post Office, Alan became involved in his union. Alan’s real passion, then as now, was to be a pop star. Having his guitar stolen put paid to a musical career; paying the bills and being a good husband and father was more important to Alan as his teenage years came to an end.
While This Boy is an excellent account of the benefits that the NHS and the welfare state brought, Alan’s memoirs also give a flavour of the patronising attitude towards working people from the new ‘administrative’ class. Alan recounts his and Linda’s experience of visiting Hammersmith hospital after their mother had died, and being given a brown paper bag with their mother’s wedding ring and false teeth, and being bluntly asked: “Why haven’t you got an adult with you?” Likewise the woman from the London County Council was in no mood to listen to Linda’s plan to enable Alan to continue to live in their council flat once she moved out to get married. Fortunately Alan was able to lodge with a school friend’s family.
This Boy is a super book. It’s the perfect present for friends and family who are sceptical about politics and politicians. Alan may not have made it as a pop star, but he certainly has made it as a writer.