I’d a vague notion of who Alan Johnson was. I read this book because I wanted to chart his journey from ordinary working-class bloke—when the book begins, ‘a seventeen-year old shelf stacker at Anthony Jackson’s supermarket on the Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen’— to becoming an MP in the Conservative government under Thatcher, or John Major. I couldn’t remember which Prime minister it was. Alan Johnson became a Labour MP and severed in the Cabinet under Tony Blair. Same difference some of you might say. The journey is still the same one. But back then as he shows time and time again we had vague notions about equality. Government wasn’t entirely a more-it-tocracy increasingly serving the rich and their own interest. Economics wasn’t entirely about funnelling money from the poor to the rich under the pretence that it made the country stronger and more self-sufficient. The difference between Labour and Tories couldn’t be reduced to a simple equation of sacking as many workers as possible, make the remainder work harder to increase productivity and sell, pass the parcel of the company on, as quickly as possible to get an increased profit for the rich without the holes in the balance sheet and in people’s lives showing. Labour were for more and better government. Think about it for a second. Labour grew out of trade unions demanding rights for workers. It’s easy to forget that with this lot going to the same public schools, the same Oxbridge education and hob-nobbing with the Tories. Same old Tories, then as now, but we at least had a partial alternative. The Tories were for less of everything, light-touch regulation and less being spent on things that didn’t and no longer matter to rich folk. Common things like having a home, being able to heat it and having food on the table. These were to be left to the market.
So I got it wrong he was in the different carriage of a train and got off at different station. Alan Johnson Labour MP. But here he is. ‘It’s Christmas Eve 1967. A Saturday. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m waiting for Mike.’ Mike’s married to Alan’s sister. An all-round good guy who likes a good drink. Back then drink driving was a laughable offence of finding your car key and being able to open the car door, rather than a criminal offence. Everybody did it. It never did you any harm school of tough love. Mike’s loveable, but his sister Linda is a little mum, their own mum, Lilian May Johnson, born 1921 had died 1964. Mike was his hero, but Linda provides the quiet corner of his life in which he can stretch and grow. Alan isn’t just a shelf-stacker. He writes songs, has started a band and hopes to hitch on the sixties zeitgeist and become a pop star.
The future Alan has planned out hits a speed-bump. He meets Judith Elizabeth Cox. He’s seventeen. She’s an older woman, twenty-one, with a child to another man. Melodrama. Not really. They are young and in love. They get married. Linda’s pregnant three months after the wedding. Thoughts of being the next Rolling Stone get shoved aside. He needs a steady job and a council house for his growing family.
Alan Johnson become a postman. He cycles from his digs in Notting Hill to Barnes Green, one of the smaller postal delivery routes in London. He’s a natural, it’s a steady job, a lot of ex-forces personnel. No corner cutting. No excuses. The mail gets delivered come what may. He’s found a vocation. Something he’s good at. But the money’s not too good. Overtime is the answer. Postman can work night and day, their job never ends (or so it seemed then).
Fast forward a few years. Alan’s got a council house in Slough. A little green were ten council houses nestled. He can’t quite believe his luck. He can still cycle to work in Slough. Their neighbours are posh, the get-up-and-go type. And they do. When council houses are given away by the government they take theirs and move on. So does Alan.
Alan becomes a union rep. It’s not something he’s thought about a great deal, but he like to read and think. Only a fool can see that the workers were being screwed. It wasn’t all politics. Working class men had their clubs and after they put the politician in themselves to bed they had a shindig. Characters like ‘Big Joe Menzies’ a former railway worker from Perth, were both an inspiration and a role model. He tapped into reservoir of people that had worked with their hands and workers with fine minds that wanted to serve others like them.
Alan finds he’s spending more time on his union duties than on his postman’s job. He keeps working. He need to keep in touch with his colleagues. Their gripes are his gripes. Their causes his causes. He finds a sponsor and is promoted to full-time union officer. He travels the country. He’s a natural union rep as he was a postman. It’s a good combination, but his marriage suffers. He divorces. But life’s on the up and up. But there’s a reminder that life isn’t something you can plan. Mike, his sister’s husband and one of his best friends, loses his job, admits he’s an alcoholic and hangs himself. Sobering.
But the years ahead with Cameron and his cronies gaining the levers of power are even more so. This book is a reminder that we once did things for ourselves, paid a decent(ish) wage, took pride in our work and did it well. Perhaps that is the lesson that needs to be re-learned. No more to the robber-barons of government share issues, like the selling off of the post office, and an increasingly large share of any enterprise to the bloated and rich that produce nothing but stir the pot of the poor and take the honey. Alan Johnson’s memoir, it seems like Dickensian times now, rather than then.