My mother gave me a copy of Alan Johnson’s “This boy: A memoir of a childhood” earlier this year, and I hungrily devoured it in a day recently! It is a wonderfully written history of a childhood growing up on the penurious streets of 1950’s North Kensington, long before it transmogrified into the wealthy, elite area of London that it now is. The narrative is direct and honest. At times, I felt like Johnson was talking to me over a couple of ales in a London boozer. This is a testament to the genuine warmth that Johnson writes with and is particularly impressive considering he was reliving an upbringing where he and his sister often went hungry in a cold, tenement house with an absentee father. Ultimately though, this is a tale of triumph over adversity. The two heroines, Johnson’s mother Lily and his sister Linda, overcame their tough start in life to succeed in different ways. Linda, Johnson’s sister, was forced to raise Alan after his mother passed away prematurely.
Johnson’s father was a boorish, violent drunk. An alcoholic clochard, who gambled away the little money that came into his possession. Johnson tells us about Christmas 1957 when his mother was in hospital with a serious illness. Where was his father Steve? He had disappeared for two days and blackmailed Alan and Linda into not telling his mother that he was away, telling them that it would upset her.
The true heroines are Lily and Linda. They worked themselves to the bone to try to improve their families lot in life, providing a way out for young Alan. Johnson makes a great observation about how the stereotypical image of the working class British woman of the 1950’s of staying at home and only doing the housework did not match up to his experience. Lily and Linda toiled in multiple jobs simultaneously just to subsist. Johnson’s father Steve refused to pay any maintenance after he left, despite a legal ruling forcing him to, meaning they had to work doubly hard to make up for this.
Johnson writes with real humour. During 1962, Lily had met potential new suitor Ron after putting an advertisement in the lonely hearts section of the Kensington Post. The relationship blossomed and the two families agreed to spend Christmas together. However, there was a sinister subtext to the invitation. Ron from Romford had secretly set a “challenge” to “test” Lily’s culinary skills while he went to the pub. That was the male mind-set. Johnson’s history is, in some ways, a measure of the huge social progress that has been made.
Lily was too preoccupied with earning a living to have honed her culinary skills in the kitchen, so she duly made a hash of cooking the festive goose. An argument ensued, where Lily gave as good as she got, and defended Alan by hugging him, something she rarely did. This in an era where Johnson says that “many men thought it was acceptable to hit their wives”. The threat of domestic violence was rife. Not on Lily’s watch, though.
There is no doubt that the decrepit, cold and damp conditions that Lily lived in resulted in a shortening of her life. Multiple visitors from professionals and family alike confirmed this. Upon her untimely passing away, Johnson eloquently and succinctly notes that “Women like Lily are dispatched quietly and with little fuss”. This sentence typifies the poetic pathos within these pages.
Linda was just as pivotal, perhaps even more so, in shaping Johnson’s early years. After Lily passed away, the government tried to put them into care but Linda somehow, inexplicably, managed to convince them that she could manage on her own. She had been paying the rent for some time beforehand anyway and continued to manage the home. She even convinced Steve to fork up some money to help them. She was determined to keep her family together regardless. Her bravery, determination and courageousness is inspirational.
The housing conditions that they lived in were inhumane. They had no heating and surviving the winters was very difficult. They could not afford an electric heater. The only one who had any money was Steve yet he absconded and set up a new life for himself, leaving his family destitute.
Lily always dreamed of having “her own front door” but never managed it. Subsisting was all that was possible. She had to buy kitchen utensils and electrical equipment such as radio’s etc. on hire purchase. Inevitably, she could not afford to pay the bills and had to return the products. This affected Alan deeply and hit home even more directly when he had to buy groceries from his local store on credit, knowing that the bill was rarely cleared. This caused him acute embarrassment in his adolescent years and affected his dignity as a human being.
In spite of the harsh conditions people were forced to live in, what shines through is the human spirit. The neighbours cared for each other. Whilst being careful not to glamourize poverty, the book delicately demonstrates how human beings survive, adapt and overcome it. With determination and humour in this case. After Alan met Linda’s new boyfriend, “the real Mod”, he is advised by him “You may be poor, but don’t show poor”.
Another key theme is the shocking level of violence that was prevalent in society at the time. In school, on the streets. He learnt that “not fighting was a sign of gentility, of prosperity”. The link between poverty and violence implicit.
“A memoir” details how London transitioned into becoming a multicultural society from the 1950’s on. Johnson chronicles the beginning of the influx of people from the UK’s crumbled empire. There is a horrible example of the naked racism that existed at the time when Lily gets chased by a “Teddy Boy” in London for sleeping with a black man.
He tells us that most people in society used “openly racist language” and how this “filtered through to the youngest members of society”, thereby condemning previous generations to be racist. Again, it is hard not to consider the level of social progress made when reading the story. Consequently, it is a tough, but ultimately rewarding read.
The lifelong QPR fan chronicles his various trips to Lofthus road and some of the victories they had, included their only trophy to date, the epic 1967 3-2 league cup triumph over West Bromwich Albion, coming back from 2-0 down too!
As Lily’s family was from Liverpool, Johnson tells a wonderful story about going to see an Everton match in Merseyside with his Uncle Harry, who used to smoke the filter-less woodbine cigarettes. After Alan had smoked 15 of them, to keep up with the Johnsons, he collapsed during the game.
Johnson was in a band that nearly succeeded. “We had so much fun failing that it didn’t matter” he remembers. He was a Beatles fan and an avid reader. Art and sport were something to help escape the drudgery of everyday life in poverty. They pointed a way out.
“A memoir” is a testament to a bygone era where the fight for racial, class and women’s equality was still in its infancy. Lily and Linda’s personal struggles were emblematic of this. They railed against the system, fought the patriarchy and personified the struggle in society at large. It is a reminder of how the human spirit will endure. The point surely, is how do we can create a society where children do not have to jump over these obstacles to begin with? It would have been intriguing to see how Johnson would have performed at the helm of the Labour Party in the UK in the post Blair years. We will never know, but he certainly would have had the passion, humour, personality and vision to help create a better world. Of course, politics is just one way to achieve that aim. Lily and Linda are proof of that.