This is the saddest book I have read. First, because it is a sad story. Not the poverty of Alan Johnson’s early life. That is merely surprising. Johnson and his older sister were brought up in conditions that were those of a foreign country to most people in the 1950s, let alone to most people now. Some of the greatest embarrassments of Johnson’s childhood came when relatives, friends or the authorities found out how they lived: in three rooms in a condemned terrace in Notting Hill, with no electricity, a cooker on the landing and buckets of urine in the bedrooms to avoid having to go out to the yard at night.
No, the sadness is in the love that Johnson feels for his mother, who died when he was 13, and for his sister, who was 16 at the time and who “kept me safe”, as he says in the dedication. The book records the gradual abandonment of his mother by his father, and how she was finally offered a council house – “with her own front door” – in Welwyn Garden City, two weeks after her funeral.
The book is beautifully, beautifully written. Johnson records that one of his early ambitions, as well as to be a pop star, was to be a writer. At school, he tried to teach himself to write left-handed: “If I was going to make a living out of writing I would need to be ambidextrous in case I broke my right arm.” He “built up an impressive collection of rejection slips”, but must have learned something, because his style is utterly simple, with a wit so understated that every reader will believe that he or she alone got it. At one point, his sister’s friends arrive in a car “packed together like a box of dates”. When his mother died, he and his sister were constantly asked, first by the hospital administrator, why they hadn’t an adult with them. “I felt like telling her we were fresh out of them.” He was one recording contract away from stardom – “to us it was more of a prediction than a fib” – as his band, the Area, played “in pubs and clubs that Andrew and I were too young to drink in”.
The second reason this is such a sad book is that it confirms my belief that Alan Johnson would have been one of the best prime ministers this country has ever had. By the end of this story, he is aged 18, a postman, married with two children. The untold story is how he went on to high office, ending as Education Secretary, then Health Secretary and finally Home Secretary. Kevin Maguire, my good comrade on the Daily Mirror, thought it odd that Johnson had, with his life story, turned out so New Labour. That wasn’t a contradiction, that was the authentic form of Labour modernisation. Yet the timing and, crucially, the self-belief, were never quite right for him.
Such a sad story of a woman who never enjoyed the comfort and dignity she deserved, and her son, who could have been the leader this country needed in hard times.