This Boy is a prequel to Alan Johnson’s Please Mr Postman, set before he started his working life spent, mostly, in the Post Office and via his union involvement access to the Labour Party, becoming an MP and becoming Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government. Our current Prime Minster Teresa May, was, of course, a former Home Secretary. Her father was a vicar. Alan Johnson’s father was an arsehole. In the prologue we’re shown a black and white picture of the happy married couple, January 1945. Stephen Arthur Johnson and Lillian May Gibson.
His smile is slight, betraying a determination not to show his teeth. The beautifully knotted beret – angled slightly too high on one side – covering his red hair. She seems happy. A pretty, petite Liverpudlian with a Doris Day nose (what she called her ‘titty nose’, which she insisted I had inherited); smart in her cockade hat, placed at the same rakish angle as his beret…He was small, she was smaller – not much more than five feet.
Part 1, Steve and Lily recalls how his sister Linda and he were born in different epochs. Linda was born before the creation of the NHS in 1947 and he was born after it in 1950 into a boom economy. His mother was advised to have no more children. Living in slum housing that had been condemned in the 1930s they had the luxury of two rooms. One for eating in and one for sleeping in, gas mantle for lighting a communal toilet in a yard with Paddington Station as a backdrop to early life in Kensal Town, Notting Hill. In the 1960s they moved up in the world, three rooms and a communal cooker on the landing for tenants where Lily burned things. Lily spent her short life hoping for the luxury of a council house. Food, or lack of it, played a big role in Alan’s early life. Free school milk and filling up on free school dinners were a big part of his upbringing.
Cash was always tight. Steve worked intermittently as a painter and decorator, but had a gift for music and could play any tune he heard on the piano. Pubs were his natural environment and the wages he made was spent on his entertainment. Lily, to get by, worked for pin-money in the fancy houses in Ladbroke Grove and South Kensington, worked in shops and cafes and it was Linda, his elder sister’s job to take care of her brother, while their mother worked. Pin money was their only source of income and Steve, when drunk, which was much of the time, was violent. The harder she worked the worse her health got. Lily had a heart condition which killed her, but a consultant might advise her to take it easy and rest but Lily often had to pray to God for a shilling to put in the meter and asked local, family-run, shops to give her tick. Even when they said no, she’d go back, and try and wear their resistance down. She had to work in the same way that the kids had to eat.
Steve had his playtime with one of his mate’s wife. He was a lady’s man as they said in those days. Steve left Lily for Elsie and Alan never found out until years later he had a half-brother, David. The bad news for Linda and Alan was that the breakup of their mum and dad’s marriage was temporary. He came back to live with them, but that was temporary too. He disappeared on a day when they out, all his clothes, open razor, stubby shaving brush and belonging gone and moved in with another fancy piece. Impoverishment was not just monetary, but of Lily’s hopes. She believed in marriage being for life and Steve leaving aged her.
From an early age Linda taught her younger brother how to duck down and hide away from the windows when the tallyman came knocking at the door looking for money. Lily, like most others, did the pools, religiously, every week. In 1957 her luck was in. She won around £90, the equivalent of around three-month’s wages for a manual worker. No more ducking down needed and downpayments on a three-piece suite, a sideboard, a kitchen table, a Spanish guitar for Alan and a Dansette record player for Linda. Lily was in her early thirties, but luxury never lasts. She was, in effect, a single parent.
Alan measures his life against some of his school friends. Tony Cox’s father, for example, had also been in the war, and he wished he was his dad too. He was steady, decent, hardworking and provided the kind of life Alan could only dream of, ‘they had an entire room that you had neither to eat or sleep in’ and it was ‘gloriously warm’. Tony Cox also had the great merit of being the best fighter and best sportsman in their neck of the woods, which offered Alan a kind of protection.
Reading was Alan’s thing and by some fluke that was enough to get him a pass in the Eleven-Plus and place in Grammar School. Only around a quarter of kids were offered places, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. They had to find a Grammar School that would take Tony, waive the fees and Lily would have to pay for extras like school uniforms. Getting Alan into Grammar school was the be and end of all of her ambition and Alan admits he didn’t really do much when he was there. His great interest was music. This resurfaces in Mr Postman, when he gets to play the guitar in a band and dreams of stardom. Of course all their gear got nicked from the pub where they kept it. Echoes of his past, when the guy he delivered milk for presented him with nicked guitar from a selection in his basement.
The hole in his life, was, of course, his mother’s early death. She dithered whether to have the operation that would extend her life, but died before she could see her daughter married and her son grow into a man, courting his sister’s friend at 17 and married with a stepchild at 21. Life over. Yeh, that’s how is seems when we’re young. But there’s a lot of living still to do. Johnson has a follow up book, The Long and Winding Road. This is a Home Secretary who did know about poverty and the stigma of being a single mother. I’m sure it shames him as it shames me that so many children live in poverty and are reliant on Food Banks. We seem to be going backwards and not forward in time.