Top positive review
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An admirable and moving memoir
on 19 May 2013
While I must admit personally to having blown hot and cold so far as the Blair and Brown governments were concerned I always regarded Alan Johnson as one of the few members of those governments who combined integrity, honesty and a deep-rooted sense of fairness with the character of an authentically nice bloke. My liking and respect for the man is enhanced by this book, not least because, although it's his own autobiograpy, in fact it's not about him per se.
And when did you last read a political autobiography that was not an ego-trip by the author?
Rather Alan Johnson's book is mainly about two remarkable women - his mother, Lily and his sister Linda - struggling for their own survival, and that of the young Alan, in dreadful slum conditions, with a husband and father, Steve - who was a total waste of space in every respect - during the period between the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Swinging Sixties. (And the book is a powerful reminder to those of us who remember those times of how bloody horrible in some many ways the "good old days" of the 50s really were; violent racism, unbridled sexism and homophobia, casual violence, grinding poverty, Arctic winters....)
Lily's life is an eternal struggle, made even more unbearable when Steve abandons her and the two children. Wastrel he may have been but his leaving is still like a bereavement. Yet she copes, robbing Peter to pay Paul, always doing her very best for Linda and Alan. Then Lily dies, at only 42 and Linda takes over, defying officialdom though only in her teens so that she and her young brother can stay together.
The story sounds tragic. While it's certainy sad, it escapes tragedy due to Alan Johnson's refusal to write it as a "dreadful childhood" memoir. Rather it is full of humour - much of it self-deprecating - optimism and generosity of spirit.
An easy read, in the sense that it is written in good,plain English, and written as a story rather than as either a polemic railing against the injustices of the time or as a profound political testament. And none the worse for that.
My only source of regret is that this man, with a character forged by intimate experience of the life of the urban poor, is no longer at the centre of Government.