Mark Cantrell, Author

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REVIEW: This Boy by Alan Johnson

Posted by Mark Cantrell on July 14, 2014 at 8:10 AM

Written without a trace of ego

Alan Johnson does that rare thing for a politician, he steps back from limelight to present an affectionate tribute to the two women who raised him -- his mother and his older sister. The result is an endearing trip down memory lane that never once descends into misery-lit despite the grit and grime of childhood poverty. For all that, the former Labour Home Secretary's memoir serves up a compelling reminder of the grim conditons austerity may yet resurrect, writes Mark Cantrell

This is a timely book, it must be said. The author, old politician that he is, might not intend it to be the political showpiece it is, but its very nature, combined with the themes of these current times, makes it so.


Indeed, whether Alan Johnson would have it that way or not, This Boy very much serves as a stark reminder of the world we ought to have left behind, but which -- as even a casual excursion into current social affairs coverage in the media reveals -- is very much making a comeback.


The past echoes as a foretelling of our future, if we drop the ball.


As has been pointed out, there have not been so many rich Old Etonians in Cabinet for some time. The routes open for working class boys and girls to 'make good' have perhaps never been so narrow as social mobility declines. The gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically, wealth inequality has reached alarming levels, bad housing abounds as an under-supply of truly affordable homes makes a mockery of the homeowning obsessions.


Meanwhile, the welfare state unravels, as Iain Duncan Smith snips away at the safety net, and the NHS -- the closest things Britons have to a national religion -- crumbles under the burden of avaricious politicians looking to flog it off to their mates for a profit.


This Boy sits amidst this grim contemporary drama, and stands out all the more for not being an angry-tubthumbing sermon striving to rabble-rouse over what we risk losing.


Rather, Johnson has written an eloquent and affectionate memoir that does that rare thing for a politician -- he takes a step-back from his own story and puts his mother and his sister firmly centrestage. For all the grim circumstances portrayed, This Boy proves to be a warm-hearted testament to the two women who raised the young Alan Johnson -- his mother Lily and his big sister Linda.


Johnson's father abandoned the family when he was but a small boy, leaving Lily to fend for herself. She worked hard, battling poor health as well as bad housing to see her children gain the best start in life she could muster. The effort took its toll and she died young, leaving her two young children to go it alone. Linda proves a staunch defender of the depleted family unit, and she becomes provider and surrogate mum to Alan.


For all the grim conditions the family face -- before and after Linda -- what with the slum housing they must endure, the hard conditions, the inadequate food (Johnson reveals how to this day he remembers the awful feeling of constant hunger), this is no misery-lit. No, indeed, there is something very much life-affirming about the memoir.


The world was changing, and while the Johnsons may have been at the sharp end of a lingering acute poverty, generally living conditions were improving, society was progressing thanks to the welfare state, council housing and the NHS, and boys such as the young Johnson had prospects unheard of for their fathers' and grandfathers' generations.


This was the dawn of the 'Swinging 60s' too, and Johnson reveals how he was very much swept up in the optimism of the times, as he reveals his ambitions to become a musician and a writer.


Well, life -- as it so often does -- interrupted such artistic aspirations, but the boy who left school at 15 without qualifications went on in later life to hold one of the high offices of State as Home Secretary.


It is hard to imagine such a career and life trajectory being open to a working class boy living in poverty born in this day and age. The book ends as Johnson is turning 18, his boyhood at an end and his adult life just beginning, and it concludes with a young man optimistic of the future.


Back then, for all the poverty and hardships of his childhood years, it was an era where he could afford that optimistic outlook. Today, as we look through the window Johnson has opened into this bygone ere we can only look at our own age and ponder how that window of opportunity has been closed for the Johnsons of the 21st Century.


Nostalgia this is not, simply because we risk the return of the grim conditions that Johnson endured as a child, only this time without the swinging optimism that things could be changed for the better.

Mark Cantrell,


13 July 2014

Copyright (C) July 2014. All Rights Reserved

Categories: BOOKS, REVIEWS

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